It’s been a while since I’ve done any Mary Downing Hahn.
Kelly McAllister is a freshman in high school in the lovely suburban planned community of Adelphia, Maryland. Kelly isn’t like the other girls. She’s not crazy about the mall and doesn’t flirt with boys. And she hates her suburban community with a passion that I understand all too well. Even though Kelly’s a poor student, she’s very smart. She doesn’t apply herself to anything except her art work. One day, her history teacher tells her that she can’t do a “current issues,” research paper trying to prove God is dead. Because that’s way too out there for the public schools. Kelly is pissed and doesn’t know what to do her paper on.
Later that day Kelly is at the library with her best friends Julie and Keith (who’ve recently started dating) and their other friend, Courtney, who is a straight-A Tracy Flick-esque student. While at the library, the kids notice the local bagman sitting there. The students are grossed out by him, but Kelly is interested and she decides she’s going to do her paper on homelessness. The other students egg her on to interview the bagman (whose name is Mr. Weems) and Kelly does it. She’s pretty rude to him and gets in trouble with the librarian.
At the very least, Kelly feels really bad about her behavior. That night as she goes to bed she’s feeling ashamed of herself and tells herself that she’s going to befriend Mr. Weems. She goes to talk to the friendly librarian who works in the children’s section and asks about him. The librarian told her that Mr. Weems is a Vietnam Vet who comes in as soon as the library opens every day and stays until closing looking through books on the war. Kelly tells the librarian that her dad is a vet too, but he doesn’t have any problems from the war. He never ever talks about being in the war. Kelly browses the kids section and reads that poem by Shel Silverstein about the man carrying the enormous sack and how no one ever asks him anything except what’s in the sack. It reminds her of Mr. Weems, so she goes back to the regular part of the library and reads at Mr. Weems’ table. She doesn’t talk to him, just sits there and reads.
When Kelly gets home, she watches her parents for a while, wondering how and why they’re together. Her dad was a vet, turned hippie, turned corporate lawyer. His hobby now seems to be getting on Kelly’s case about her sloppy clothes and bad grades. Mom is an artist who paints fantasy-themed greeting cards. Kelly is derisive of her mother’s choice of artistic career, always wondering why her mother refuses to be a “real” artist. Kelly tells them about Mr. Weems and her paper. Dad is all “Uncle Sam’s going to give him handouts. He doesn’t need to live that way. Blah Blah Blah.” The next day Kelly packs a bunch of food for Mr. Weems, and takes some of her dad’s old winter gear along with that. She goes to the library and gives it to him. Because “whether he knew it or not, he needed a friend like [Kelly].” Mr. Weems doesn’t want it and promptly throws her food away.
Damn that Mr. Weems – doesn’t he know Kelly just wants to help? Kelly has more fights with her dad. At one point Kelly goes to the lake by the library and Mr. Weems sits down next to her. She doesn’t say anything for a while, then talks a little about the ducks and swans in the lake. Mr. Weems doesn’t answer. Then she tries to offer him help again and he yells at her that he doesn’t need her help. When she gets back to the library, she walks in on a man and woman complaining to the librarian about Mr. Weems’ presence in the library. That he’s a nuisance and might be dangerous. The librarian explains that it’s a public building, but the douchenozzles are all “I’m a taxpayer! I shouldn’t have to put up with people like him!” Kelly confronts them, but they’re cold and careless.
In english class, the class is reading war poems. The Iliad and Dulce et Decorum Est. A lot of the kids hate the poems because war is about GLORY, YO! Kelly is Ms. Sensitive and sticks up for all the effed up vets like Mr. Weems who can’t get over what they saw in the war. The teacher (a Vietnam Vet himself) says that soldiers have to try and forget what they saw in the war, otherwise they couldn’t function. Kelly and Keith point out that maybe if they remembered, there wouldn’t be any more wars. But, according to the class hawk, Brett, “That’s just what the Russians want us to think.” Oh 1988. The Russians. How quaint to think of that now.
A couple weeks goes by. Kelly keeps trying to “help” Mr. Weems. He doesn’t want her help. A Veteran’s social worker comes by and Mr. Weems refuses his help also. Kelly reads and article and in all her infinite fourteen year old wisdom, she diagnoses Mr. Weems with PTSD. Kelly tries to get Mr. Weems to read the article in the magazine, but he gets mad and throws the magazine at her, which gets Kelly kicked out of the library. Her friends are horrified by her behavior.
At Thanksgiving, Kelly talks a lot with her Great Aunt Eliza who is a kindred liberal spirit about Mr. Weems. They drive around to try and take him Thanksgiving dinner, which he does quietly accept. Eliza volunteers at a soup kitchen in a bad neighborhood in Baltimore and wants Kelly to come along. She tries to explain to Kelly that some people can’t trust others and no one can force Mr. Weems to get the help he needs.
The day after Thanksgiving, Mr. Weems isn’t at the library. Kelly talks to the mean librarian, who tells her that they’ve had so many complaints about him that they had to do something about it. They couldn’t kick him out, because it is a public library. But the bags he took with him everywhere were a hazard, so they told him he couldn’t bring his bags in. Kelly started crying and the librarian brought her into the office. And you think she’s going to try to comfort Kelly, but the librarian points out that they only had to do this because Kelly provoked Mr. Weems with her magazine article. When Mr. Weems threw the magazine at Kelly, a lot of patrons became concerned about him being dangerous.
Kelly is horrified that she’s the cause of this. When she and her dad are leaving the library, they get stuck in traffic, and as they drive slowly by an accident, Kelly’s dad urges her not to look. But she does and it’s Mr. Weems, who’s been hit by a car and died. Now Kelly feels responsible for Mr. Weems’ death. Not only that, but the sight of a dead body sends Kelly’s dad into a little bit of a Vietnam flashback Kelly is terribly upset and her mother tries to help her and her dad. Kelly believes that Mr. Weems is a delayed casualty of the Vietnam War.
She wants to visit the Vietman memorial in DC, and at her mother’s urging, asks her dad to take her. Her dad has never been. Kelly leaves a sketch she’d made of Mr. Weems there. Kelly’s dad is hesitant at first, but with the help of a volunteer goes and looks at the names. He finds a group of names of guys from his platoon, and tells Kelly about how they got blown up by a mine. He was one of the few survivors and he had to go back for identifiable body parts. He feels guilty for not only surviving, but for being glad to have survived. And that’s how the book ends, on a nice little bit of bonding between a dad and his daughter.
- The book is uneven. The parts about the Vietnam Vets drug a little and honestly, it was pretty preachy. With everyone being either super liberal and doing everything in their power to proselytize about the Vets issues or being super conservative and saying the Vets are suckling off the teat of Uncle Sam. They are all meanies!
- But there’s this whole other part to the book that I didn’t really get into, where Kelly feels disconnected from her friends who are going to parties and making out with boys and going to football games. Kelly just doesn’t want to do that type of stuff and she worries that she’s weird and will never fit it. And those small parts of the book are really effective and just classic MDH.
- As always in MDH’s books, there is a nice layer of suburban discontent. Jessica (from Daphne’s book), Lauren (from The Wind Blow Backwards) and Kelly from this book all hate their town. Interestingly enough, they all live in the fictional Adelphia, Maryland. I believe Adelphia is modeled after Columbia, Maryland, which is a planned suburb about halfway between Baltimore and Washington. I live in suburban Maryland, and I can totally sympathize.
- MDH really isn’t fair to boy-crazy girls. Just because a girl cares about makeup and likes to make out with boys, doesn’t mean she’s a stupid mall rat who doesn’t care about social issues. But it isn’t just MDH, that’s an issue in Y.A. in general.
- Listen, I spent more time than average at the library as a kid and teenager, but these freaking kids are total library rats. This book really only takes place over a two or three week period. And there are at least six different visits to the library. I mean, I get that this was the pre-Internets age, but really? All the kids know the names of all the librarians.
- Kelly does have her heart in the right place, but she’s pretty insufferable.
- Kelly’s friend, Courtney, has a boyfriend Doug who leaves a $0.40 tip for a waitress at Friendly’s. Dick. I wish Kelly’s would have gotten preachy about that too, but she just grudgingly accepted it.
- So now I feel old. Plenty of my friends’ dads are Vietnam Vets. (My own father failed his physical – which, how grateful can you be for partial hearing loss? I am so grateful for his!) But I just realized that kids reading this book today would be more likely to have grandparents who are Vietnam Vets. Nothing like blogging about your old books to make you realize just how freaking old you actually are. Sigh.