Friday, January 10, 2014

Imperfect Spiral by Debbie Levy

Imperfect Spiral is a poignant story about a girl struggling to come to terms with a terrible accident during her summer holidays. Imperfect Spiral is really two stories interwoven; the story of five year old Humphrey T. Danker and his fifteen year old babysitter, Danielle (Danny) Snyder during the summer, and the story of what happens to Danny, her family and her town as a result of the accident. The events which occur over the summer and into the month of September, are narrated by Danny with the story of Humphrey and Danny told in flashback.  

The novel opens in the immediate aftermath of the accident. Fifteen year old Danny is trying to cope with the horror that has overtaken her life - the death of little Humphrey, whom she has nicknamed "Humpty". Danielle's job for the summer had been to babysit five year old Humphrey, the son of a prominent Washington, DC lawyer known for arguing cases that have come before the Supreme Court. Humphrey's mother has seen her breast cancer return a third time and she needs someone to care for Humphrey while she undergoes treatments.

One summer evening while walking home along Quarry Road in the Franklin Grove neighbourhood, Humphrey is struck by a blue minivan. Those living along Quarry Road rush out to help; Mrs. McGillcudy brings a blanket, Mr. and Mrs. Stashowers control the bystanders and Mrs. Raskin asks if Humphrey's parents, Tom and Clarice, have been contacted. All the while, Danny cradles Humphrey's head in her hands until EMS arrive. After being checked out at the hospital, Danny is questioned at home by two police officers about what happened. She tells them that she and Humphrey were walking home when she dropped the football she was carrying. Its crazy bounce sent Humphrey into the street after it causing him to be hit by the minivan. After talking with the police, Danny learns that Humphrey has died and she is utterly devastated.

Danny's family and friends rally around her after the death of Humphrey, including those friends she has lost touch with. Her best "friend", Becca Sherman, texts her from the summer camp where she is a counselor-in-training (CIT).  Becca and Danny have attended both regular and Sunday school together, and had their Bat Mitzvahs together but over time they began to drift apart. Becca has tried to encourage Danny to come out of her shell, to join student council and be a part of student life at Western High, all to no avail. Becca wanted Danny to be a CIT with her, but she refused. Now Becca is reaching out to Danny, attempting to help her through a difficult time.

Danny's other friend, Marissa Martinez calls her after seven months of silence. Danny had a falling out with Marissa over her views about Danny's brother, Adrian. Adrian left home when he was four credits short of his high school diploma. He as a confrontational relationship with their parents who tried to plan out his life. He now works odd jobs and has signed on as a plumber's apprentice. Adrian begins coming home more frequently to help Danny cope with the tragedy. During his visits, Adrian reveals to Danny that he piecing his life back together on his own term.

After the accident, in what appears to be a chance meeting Danny sees a boy, Justin, at the park where she and Humphrey used to play. This park is full of memories for Danny because they made it into their special place, creating an imaginary world called Thrumble-Boo. Justin is from the nearby community of Montgomery Heights and Danny is puzzled as to why he is at the park in Franklin Grove. Justin tells her that he often comes to play ball with his buddies. After meeting a few times, Justin calls Danny at home to arrange to meet for coffee and they soon start to date. But it turns out that Justin has other reasons for meeting Danny, and that he has been harbouring a dark secret that draws him into what happened on Quarry Road.

As Danny struggles to cope with her feelings of guilt over Humphrey's death, the community becomes embroiled in a discussion about illegal immigrants after it is learned that the driver of the blue minivan was Eugene Folgar Guzman, an illegal immigrant whose student visa expired a decade earlier. Others in the community want sidewalks and better lighting installed along the road. Danny becomes distraught over the controversy because she feels lighting, sidewalks and more enforcement on illegal immigrants would not have saved Humphrey. It was her carelessness that resulted in his death not the lack of lighting or the presence of illegal immigrants in their community.

Meanwhile, as Danny struggles with her guilt and shame, she remembers her time with Humphrey over the summer. Humphrey proves to be a delightful child, both creative and inquisitive who seems to be largely ignored by his cerebral father whose focus is on correct grammar and proper manners. And with his gravely ill mother preoccupied with her health problems, it falls to Danny to fill in emotionally where she can.

When Danny throws a football to him, Humphrey wants to throw one too, but his throws never "spiral" like Danny's do, despite her trying repeatedly to teach him. So instead she teaches him to catch a football first. In a very touching passage, Danny struggles to understand why Humphrey isn't able to catch the ball, until she hits on a novel idea that helps Humphrey master the feat. This inspires Humphrey to continue working on trying to throw a perfect spiral - the main goal of his life as a five year old.

Eventually Danny is sent to see a therapist, Dr. Gilbert, who helps her to work through her feelings of guilt and grief over Humphrey but also to help her discover why she has made her life so narrow.

In the town though, the accident draws the community into a battle against immigrants. Danny refuses to attend the community meeting, although she does sneak in to see what happens. Later Danny is asked to testify at the Megis County Council hearing into the possible improvements on Quarry Road.   At first Danny refuses, but then she makes a brave decision to take a stand, to tell her story and what she really thinks. She decides to be an activist, like her friend Becca has insisted she has been all along.

This has to be one of the best-written young adult novels I have read. Levy grabs her readers' attention from the very beginning with the story of the  fatal accident  and then fills in the details throughout the book. Woven between these details are the struggles of Danny, Adrian, Justin, and the Dankers.

The writing is engaging and sensitive, capturing not only the guilt and remorse of a teenage girl, but also portraying a sensitive little boy who thinks a bit differently from those around him. Humphrey is a character readers will easily fall in love with, making his death all the more tragic. And yet as we read about his days with Danny and even at the end of the novel, his very last day, Humphrey's life is a triumph. He finds beauty in the simplest things and looks at the world with a sense of innocence. Levy succeeds brilliantly with the character of Humphrey because she makes her readers truly adore this little boy -  he's truly unforgettable. He is the boy who loves the purple velour pants he sees in the store when they go shopping for a gift for his mother - pants that Humphrey says "bring him to tears".

The main character of the novel, Danny, embarks on a journey of rediscovery and Humphrey and his death help her do just that. When her older brother Adrian left, Danny felt like she lost a part of herself.  She begins to close herself off from people and stops believing in herself. Her time with Humphrey reveals Danny as a perceptive young woman who cares about people. Humphrey's death and the resulting manipulation of the council meetings by people with their own agendas forces Danny to step out of her shell and to find her voice once again - if Humphrey's death is to have any sort of meaning.

The themes of healing and forgiveness are paramount in this novel. Danny begins to learn to forgive herself and try to heal from the loss of Humphrey - a little boy with whom she had a tender relationship. She must also forgive her friends for abandoning her but acknowledge her own responsibility in pushing them away. Tom Danker reaches out to forgive Danny allowing her to begin to heal, recognizing that he didn't treat Humphrey well over the summer. Adrian also began to reconcile with his parents because he was able to live his life on his terms and not those dictated by his parents. Do so meant he had to move out but that was his choice.  Even on a community level, there is a need for forgiveness; many people in the community want the Guzman's arrested and deported as illegal aliens even though they have now lived in America for over a decade and their children are completely innocent. People reasoned that if Guzman wasn't in the country he would not have hit Humphrey but Levy counters this argument by having Guzman's son save a man's life, demonstrating that this argument is a straw man. Choices in life have both good and bad consequences and it's impossible to tell which will come about.

The theme of friendship is also important in Imperfect Spiral. There's the special friendship Danny had with Humphrey despite their age difference. And then there is the friendship that Danny had with Becca. Danny was intimidated by Becca's ambition and her plans for her life. But Danny didn't have those kinds of plans yet and she wasn't as sure about her future as Becca seems to be. When her brother Adrian left, Danny began to limit herself because she didn't want to outshine her older brother. Her life got smaller and her friend Becca recognized this change but couldn't seem to help. It's only when Danny talks with Dr. Gilbert that she begins to understand this. Humphrey's death provides the motivation she needs.

Imperfect Spiral is a wonderful novel that is such a refreshing change from the typical young adult fare.  My one complaint is the book's cover which should have featured a playground with roundabout, perhaps incorporating a bumblebee mounted on springs and a football. These figured prominently in the novel and just seem to make sense on the cover.

Book Details:
Imperfect Spiral by Debbie Levy
New York: Walker Books An Imprint of Bloomsbury
339 pp.

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