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AN OCEAN IN IOWA by Peter Hedges


by Peter Hedges

Pub Date: April 6th, 1998
ISBN: 0-7868-6404-4
Publisher: Hyperion

In his carefully understated way, Hedges follows up What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1991) with a boy’s tale of quiet desperation when his artist mother suddenly abandons him and his sisters to find herself. Joan Ocean didn’t plan to leave her family in West Glen, Iowa, in 1969; but after her latest show of nude self-portraits met with a chilly reception, it just happened that way. Scotty, her seven-year-old youngster, doesn’t quite know how it will all turn out, but he’s certain that it’s all his fault. He turns inward but still does his share of the chores, helping his sister with laundry, and his father the Judge with dinner and the dishes. Joan, who has begun drinking heavily, returns for Christmas, raising everyone’s hopes, but she makes it clear that she doesn’t want to live with the family anymore, and Scotty finds himself truly at sea. He looks for a substitute for Joan in the pretty mother of a second-grade classmate, but when he crawls under the covers with her during a sleepover, that possibility is eliminated. He acts up in class, wearing for days a football helmet he received for Christmas, runs amok through school when he realizes a visiting artist has lied to them about the color of mountains; and, finally, when Joan is arrested for drunk driving, reduces a vulnerable, trusting classmate to tears by telling her that his mother is going to be executed. None of this brings Joan back, of course, so Scotty decides he’s going to stay seven forever, and on the eve of his next birthday he makes use of a grenade, which a neighbor, an ex-soldier, brought back from Vietnam, to keep his pledge. The child’s-eye view is finely done, but its limitations are also apparent, as Scotty’s world, family, and friends seem at critical moments to be not just imperfect but insubstantial. (Author tour)