THE ANIMAL, THE VEGETABLE AND JOHN D. JONES by Betsy Byars

THE ANIMAL, THE VEGETABLE AND JOHN D. JONES

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In this sharply cast but overly managed story, three kids, two of them sisters, are thrown together when the girls' divorced father decides to share their two-week island vacation with his widowed "friend" Delores, John D.'s mother. All three kids are disgruntled with the arrangement, even before they meet, and their discontent is set when they do meet--with seventh-grader John D. and his mother walking in on Clara, his age, and Deanie, a little older, in the midst of one of the sisters' dumb fights. The scene itself has its satisfactions, though, for John D.--an outsider type who has cultivated an air of calm disdain, even toward his mother? and who delights in administering the perfect put-down (though he seems easily humiliated himself). Gloats John D., "Coming into the house and finding the girls screaming insults at each other, perfect insults--insults that told him everything he wanted to know about them--well. . . it was like one of those TV shows. . . ." This is just one example of Byars' use here of standard, stagey devices which she then identifies as such--as if to let us know that she knows better. In a more central flaunting of this practice, a native on the airplane going in warns John D.'s mother about the local currents. There have already been two drownings this year, the man tells her. "The way he said it made John D. think of a disaster movie made cheaply for TV"--and so all through the book whenever Clara goes swimming you expect her to be swept out to sea. . . until at last she is, snoozing on an inflated float. Byars stretches out the premonition of danger until John D. becomes alarmed and mobilizes Deanie. But they have no boat, and Clara is missing for hours before an alerted fishing boat picks her up. Meanwhile the raft is found, Clara is presumed lost, and Deanie--hitherto preoccupied with cheerleading tryouts, the perfect tan, and tormenting her sister--gives in to Delores' friendly overtures and blubbers about all the times she was mean to Clara. The crisis over, the group has been consolidated and Deanie is pretty much back to normal. Clara, who's been generally miserable all along, feels joy in surviving and conviction that she has, inexpressibly, changed. Having witnessed her terror and tenacity at sea, we can accept this. John D.'s breakthrough into caring and feeling, though, is a little too neat. "He felt as if he had been drawn into a strong unknown current himself, swept out of a safe harbor into dangerous waters," says Byars, neglecting this time to note that his thoughts sound like cheap melodrama. No doubt John D. needed to be shocked into such a recognition, even at the risk of seeming less than cool. And Byars makes him interesting from the start, with his wry observations and obvious emotional inadequacy. In fact she plays all three children off against each other with sympathy, understanding, and a sure sense of dramatic revelation. However, this falls short of the penetrating warmth and conviction of Byars at her best.
Pub Date: April 1st, 1982
ISBN: 0370309146
Page count: 123pp
Publisher: Delacorte
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1982




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