Doug Swieteck's mother has the most beautiful smile you've ever seen, a smile that makes you stare and forget all about Elizabeth Taylor. Doug Swieteck's father is a drunk, an angry drunk with fast hands. Doug Swieteck's oldest brother is in Vietnam, and his other older brother is a criminal. And now they're moving to Marysville, New York, which is where Doug's father found a job after being fired from his old one, and Doug hates stupid Marysville.
But there are people in Marysville, some of whom make Doug's life better, some of whom make it worse, most of whom do a little of each. There are the paintings in the Audubon books, the birds that Doug uses as an emotional vocabulary, and that he learns to draw, slowly, painstakingly, laboriously, and as his art improves...so do some other things.
Ohmigod this book broke my heart. It's so--the cruelty Doug is shown, both casually and consciously, seemed very realistic to me in a way that I almost couldn't stand. The thing that most got me, actually, was not the outright abuse by Doug's father or the egregious behavior of Coach Reed, but that remark that Principal Peattie made to Doug. Because when you're a kid who's home life is that terrible, a principal saying something like that would be so discouraging, so incredibly hurtful, as it was to Doug. But for the principal, frustrated by this kid's lack of respect, the fact that he wasn't even trying, and after a long day--I can see it happening.
There are moments, shining moments of triumph in Doug's life. But there's always a sense of precariousness to those moments, because Doug has learned, and we learn with him, that when things are going good, that's when they start to go wrong.
I loved Doug, though. He has an amazing voice, and the fact that I was so very involved with him had everything to do with why this book was so very effective, and affecting, for me.