"Let me tell you the rotten thing that happened to me…" or Pinballs

Here is what I remembered from this book before I just re-read it. Three kids are in foster care. One boy’s dad ran over him in his car, breaking both legs. And I remember that I read it in 5th grade, did a book report on it, and that I earned a Bookit Certificate from Pizza Hut for it. I read so much, I earned the maximum amount of Bookit Pizzas, but too bad I didn’t really care for pizza back then….

So I didn’t have much of a memory to go on. This book is fantastic. It’s very quick (I read it in about two hours) but is quite deep for the age (probably 10-12’s). We meet the three main characters right away. Harvey is a boy (maybe 13-ish) who is being raised by a single dad. Mom left to live on a commune in Virginia. Harvey’s dad gets drunk one night and accidentally runs Harvey over in his car, breaking both of Harvey’s legs. (Dad thought the car was in reverse) Harvey is sent to foster care “until such time as the father can control his drinking and make a safe home for the boy.” Thomas J is the next kid. He’s about eight years old. His mother abandoned him as a toddler at a farm. He was raised by elderly twins (The Benson Twins) who never notified anyone about his existence. The Benson twins both broke their hips on the same day, and little Thomas J was discovered and he was placed in foster care “until such time as his real identitiy can be established or permanent adoptive parents can be located.” Finally, we meet Carlie. I don’t think her age is ever given, but it seems that she is a year or two older than Harvey (so 14-15 maybe). I believe that Carlie is one of the greatest characters in YA fiction. Sure, she can be a total bitch, but she also has a big heart if you know where to look. And she’s funny (usually without meaning to be). Carlie’s stepfather had taken to beating her, eventually giving her a concussion. Even being concussed, though, Carlie still managed to clock him with a double boiler because “nobody hits me without getting hit back!” Carlie is put into foster care “until the home situation stabilizes.” To which Carlie replies “…that means I’ll stay until I’m ready for the old folks home.”

The three kids arrive within a day of each other at the foster home, the Masons. Carlie immediately dislikes Mrs. Mason because she wears an apron. (She’s unsuccesfully trying to imitate Mrs. Walton, according to Carlie.) Harvey is in a wheelchair, and is despondant, rarely talking to anyone. Thomas J is completely out of his element, having spent the last six years of his life with octogenarian twins who were nearly-deaf.

Mrs. Mason makes some attempts to break through Carlie’s rough exterior, which Carlie naturally rebuffs. Mrs. Mason tells Carlie she believes that she (Carlie) can help Harvey overcome his depression, because she is a very strong girl. Carlie explains to Mrs. Mason that she, Thomas J and Harvey are Pinballs. Someone came in and put in a dime, punched a button and they ended up in the same groove. But you never see the pinballs trying to help each other out, do you? It’s because they can’t, they are controlled by people at the levers. Then they get settled again before someone comes back with another dime. She says she can’t help Harvey because she can’t even help herself.

The kids decide to write letters. Carlie writes to her mom begging her to take her back. And promises to stay out of her stepfather’s way. Thomas J writes to the Benson twins in the hospital, but can’t think of anything to say other than “how are your hips?” Harvey can’t decide who to write to. He doesn’t want to write to his father, his last memory being his father crying (real tears!) in Harvey’s hospital room. Harvey decides to make a list instead “Bad things that have happened to me.” Carlie reads his list. She said she is going to make a list of “big events and how I got cheated out of them.”

Harvey continues to make lists, and it starts to bring him out of his shell. It seems to be therapeutic. He makes lists of “Books I have enjoyed,” “People I am afraid of,” and “Promises that my mother broke.” Carlie, just by acting like herself, also starts to bring Harvey out of his shell. Meanwhile, Thomas J begins to bond with Mr. Mason who takes him to visit the Benson twins in the hospital.

Harvey starts thinking about his mother. He is convinced his mother has written him letters in the past which his father destroyed. Harvey remembers an article in the New York Times magazine about the commune where his mother moved shortly after she left. He and Carlie go to the library because he wants to look up that article so he can find an address to write his mother. Harvey confesses to Carlie at this point how his legs got broken. Here are Carlie’s sage words of wisdom:

“You know, just think about this. Just think about you and me as unborn babies. Somebody comes up to us with a pad and a pencil and says ‘What do you want in a father?’ Well, we’d list all kinds of things. I’d say I want a father who is good looking-after all, half of your looks do come from your father- and I’d say I want a father who is rich and one who loves me. I’d go on and on. Never once would I think to say ‘I want a father who will stick around.’ I mean, Harvey, he didn’t even wait to see if I was a boy or a girl! He doesn’t even know I’m me! And you, never once would you think to say ‘I want a father who will know the difference between forward and reverse in a stupid car….and then to make matters worse, there are people in the world who really want children and haven’t got one. Life is really unfair.”

See why I love Carlie?

A few weeks later, Harvey’s dad is coming for his first visit since Harvey has been in foster care. Harvey’s birthday is in a few days and his dad brings him a gift and takes him out to dinner. In Dad’s defense, he does seem awfully contrite, although it’s never mentioned if he has quit drinking. At dinner, Harvey tells his dad he wrote a letter to the mom. Dad tells Harvey he won’t be hearing from her. Harvey accuses dad of destroying all the letters she ever wrote him, but dad says no, she never wrote. Harvey believes that since his legs are broken, she’ll feel bad and write now. And Dad says, well she didn’t write when you had the appendectomy or the measles. How did she know about those at all, Harvey wants to know. Well, Dad wrote to her to let her know and she still never wrote back. Harvey realizes his dad is telling the truth.

When he gets back to the Mason’s Harvey’s depression and despondancy are back in full force. He is refusing to talk or to come to the table for meals. Mrs. Mason goes to Carlie again about helping Harvey and not giving up. Carlie tells Mrs. Mason that she doesn’t give up on people she likes. Carlie attempts to make Harvey feel better by offering to sign his cast. When she looks at his feet, she notices his toes on his right foot are red and swollen. It’s off to the hospital for Harvey. The Masons tell Carlie and Thomas J that Harvey’s leg is badly infected and he has to stay in the hospital. The worst part is that “he just doesn’t seem to care.”

Carlie is determined to help Harvey. She and Thomas J visit frequently, but can’t get through to him. He seems to be getting worse. One day, Carlie is reading the paper and finds a notice for free puppies. She remembers one of Harvey’s lists where he always wanted a dog, but Dad wouldn’t allow it. She decides to get one of the puppies for Harvey’s birthday. She and Thomas J sneak into the hospital with the puppy in a shopping bag. A very nice nurse looks the other way. Harvey is shocked at first, but is so happy he begins to cry and the puppy licks his tears. Carlie tells him that they can’t keep lugging the puppy into the hospital, so if he (Harvey) wants to see the puppy again, he has to get better.

Then Carlie and Thomas J have to go back to the Mason’s and tell Mr. and Mrs. Mason that they went and got a dog for Harvey without permission. Luckily, Mrs. Mason thinks it was a lovely thing to do. The book ends with Carlie and Thomas J having a heart to heart while waiting for Harvey to leave the hospital.

  • This book is good. Not just YA good, but GOOD good.
  • I think I might not have painted Carlie in the right light. She’s a mouthy little broad and sometimes it’s hard to see her in a nice light…until the end that is. But I felt great affection for her character right from the beginning.
  • It’s never mentioned if any of the kids get returned to their home. Obviously, Thomas J doesn’t (both Benson twins eventually died), and that’s fine because he and Mr. Mason form a pretty tight bond. I doubt Carlie goes home. Her mother never inquiries after her. Harvey is another story. He might get to go home, if his dad goes through rehab. Even though he was hurt the worst, I do feel like that situation has the greatest chance of being salvaged. Or at least I do believe his dad, with his contrition, left open room for some kind of relationship with his son, even if Harvey remains in foster care.
  • The Masons weren’t able to have kids. But they have had 17 foster kids (before these three even came). She tells Carlie she always assumed she’d have a child of her own, one who would never leave. But nobody has that. And it has worked out. Not how she thought when she was Carlie’s age, but it worked out.
  • This book is heavy on themes and character development…all in just 136 pages. That’s probably why I enjoyed the book more now than I did as a kid.
  • EDIT: Also, this was made into an ABC afterschool special. It kicked ass.

About nikkihb

Wife. Mother. Reader. Blogger.
This entry was posted in abandoned kids, Betsy Byars. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to "Let me tell you the rotten thing that happened to me…" or Pinballs

  1. Cari says:

    OMG, I LOVED this book so much! I took it out of my school library a million times. I love it so much I even purchased a new copy as an adult. 🙂 Thanks for covering this one — I actually never knew anyone else who read it. None of my childhood friends ever did.

  2. I loved this book so much as a kid! I was trying to decide what book I should get my friend’s eleven year old daughter for Christmas, and I think this might just be it. 🙂

  3. zanne says:

    This does sound like a really good book. I never read it when I was younger. I remember those Book It certificates at Pizza Hut!

  4. colleenn says:

    This sounds really good. It’s making me want to track down a copy somewhere. It’s sad that I read so much as a kid but seem to have missed all of the actual good well-written books.

  5. OMG, this book sounds amazing! I want to read it! 🙂

  6. Anna says:

    I looooved this book! The cover of my copy featured Carlie wearing a hot pink halter top. I wanted that top so, so badly.

  7. kitcat61782 says:

    I just found your blog a few days ago. I found this book yesterday at goodwill for 50 cents and they were having a buy get one free sale! I couldn’t believe my good luck I got ten children’s books for $5!

  8. Pingback: “He would be on the commercial…” Or The TV Kid | Are You There Youth? It's Me, Nikki

  9. Cass says:

    I loved this book as a kid and loved the Afterschool Special (with Kristy McNichol as Carlie) but hadn’t read it in years. I’m a librarian and I just came across a copy in the kid’s room a week or so ago, and managed to read the whole thing at the desk over the course of evening shift. While some of the references are dated (Tony Orlando and Dawn!) I felt that it still holds up, and was glad to see that it has been checked out regularly.

    One thing that I remembered well from childhood readings that still made me laugh was the way Thomas J always yelled, because the elderly twins who raised him were nearly deaf. I found Carlie’s protectiveness of Harvey touching – she really did have a good heart, and the relationship was good for both of them.

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