Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Restart by Gordon Korman

Chase Ambrose, star of the football team was the most feared kid at Hiawasse Middle School. Chase along with his buddies Aaron Haikiman and Bear Bratsky terrorized just about everyone in the school and in their town. Their prime target was Joel Weber, a gifted pianist.

 But Chase's life changes drastically when he falls off the roof of his house. The fall results in a separated shoulder,  a severe concussion and acute-retrograde amnesia.  He doesn't remember his mother or father or his older brother Johnny who's a college student home for the summer.  and even can't quite remember his name. The only memory he has is of a little girl.

Chase who's also star of the Hiawasse football team is told by Dr. Cooperman that he is out for the year. When Chase returns home, he meets his father's new wife Corinne and his four-year-old half sister Helene, both of whom seem wary of him. "They look at me like I'm a time bomb about to go off in their faces. What did I ever do to them?" This is Chase's first hint that he's not been a very nice person.

Chase's mother doesn't fill him in on his life before his accident. At school Chase is accosted by Aaron and Bear who are eager for him to return to the football team. Chase also meets with the school principal, Dr. Fitzwallace who urges him to see this as a "chance to rebuild yourself from the ground up, to make a completely fresh start." Chase wonders "What was so wrong about the old me that now I have to be somebody else?" At lunch Brendan Espinoza is terrified when Chase sits down at his table. He is immediately bullied by Chase's friends who force Chase to sit with them.

More incidents reveal to Chase that he was just not well liked, but in fact most people were terrified of him. When he first meets his half sister Helene, she is completely terrified of Chase. At school when Chase tries to help a girl, she flees in terror. Students act odd, conversations end when he walks by and people turn away from him as he walks down the hall. From Aaron and Bear, Chase learns they are assigned community service at the Graybeard Motel on Portland Street, helping the elderly residents. They were arrested and assigned community service for planting several cherry bombs in the piano at open house. Aaron and Bear dismiss what happened, telling Chase they do what they want and the adults can't do much. Their conversation leaves Chase doubting his removal from the football team for the season. This leads Chase to confront his mother about not telling him he was assigned community service. When he tries to downplay what happened his mother's account of what happened at the school open house makes Chase feel ashamed.

Meanwhile Brendan Espinoza can't get anyone from the video club to help him make his video. Brendan is a nerd, honor roll student, president of the video club, and Academic Decathlon champ. With Joel Weber gone, Brendan is certain Chase and his friends will target him now. But Chase seems friendly and different. So when he sees Chase in the hallway, Brendan invites Chase to help him shoot his video. Brendan's video of him riding a tricycle through the Shiny Bumper car wash almost gets Chase in trouble again. But Brendan diffuses the situation and Chase acknowledges that it was Brendan's good reputation and not his bad one that saves him. Because they had so much fun together, Brendan invites Chase to join the video club. Shoshanna Weber and the other members of the club are horrified when they hear this. Shoshanna's brother Joel was the victim of Chase and his friends cherry bomb prank. It was the reason he has left Hiawassee to attend another school. But Brendan insists Chase is not the same person as he tells the group, "...He was helpful. He had good ideas. He was even nice. He's different."

Ms. DeLeo tells they club they must accept Chase. At the meeting, they discuss working on entries for the National Video Journalism Contest which will feature profiling a senior citizen. They are also working on producing a video yearbook which includes student interviews and information on school clubs and teams. Chase is assigned to cover the football team. Shoshanna refuses to believe that Chase is a different person. "No. Amnesia can wipe out the details of your past, but it can't change the kind of person you are. "

Chase decides to accompany Aaron and Bear to the Portland Street Assisted Living Residence where they  are assigned to take snacks to the residents. Chase watches as his two buddies eat most of the cookies  on the cart and refer to the residents in disrespectful ways. Chase is upset by how his friends behave and starts to really help, adjusting beds and helping find TV remotes.At the home Chase meets Julius Solway who was awarded a Medal of Honor for his service during the Korean War. Chase finds Julius to be a "cool" guy and begins to develop a relationship with him. His interest in  Julius's medal leads the elderly man to admit he can't find his medal. At a meeting of the video club, Chase suggests to Shoshanna that she video Mr. Solway for her entry in to the video contest.

Chase joins Shoshanna as she interviews Mr. Solway. As time passes, Chase finds himself struggling against being pulled back into his old bullying ways by Aaron and Bear. The choice to be a new person means gaining new friends and losing old ones. And it offers Chase the unexpected opportunity to confront and right a wrong that the old Chase did.

Discussion

Restart is a thoroughly enjoyable account of a thirteen-year-old boy who gets a chance to change his life as a result of an accident. Korman deftly weaves his story using multiple narrators; Chase Ambrose, Shoshanna Weber. Brendan Espinoza, Kimberly Tooley, Aaron Hakimian, and Joel Weber.  Chase's memory is wiped clean, offering him a second chance. The old Chase was a bully who terrorized Joel Weber so much that his family was forced to send him to another school after a terrible prank. That prank resulted in Chase and his friends Aaron and Bear being arrested and assigned community service. But even there Chase and his friends continued their bad behaviour, treating the residents disrespectfully with Chase stealing Mr. Solway's medal. Besides Chase's story, Korman also includes a subplot involving Brendan Espinoza who attempts to attract the interest of Kimberly Tooley who only has eyes for Chase.

following his accident, everything the new Chase uncovers about the old Chase is unsettling. He remembers how he gleefully ripped the head off of his half-sister Helene's teddy bear and when his brother Johnny left for college, Chase remembers the scorn he felt for his brother who's terrified and his mother who is sad. He learns that he seriously hurt Brendan by pushing his head into a drinking fountain, causing him to need three stitches. His friends Aaron and Bear tell Chase that he was the one who chose Joel to bully.

The new Chase is completely different, friendly, kind and helpful. He enjoys his visits to the assisted living center. "But I find the residents kind of interesting. They remember stuff in real life that you can only read about in history books." He is horrified when Bear takes twenty dollars from Mrs. Swanson who "isn't all there" and when Bear refuses to return the money, Chase uses his own money. He helps Shoshanna complete her video project for the competition partly out of interest and partly to repay what he did to her family and he apologizes to both the Weber family and to Brendan.

Chase's transformation from bully to good guy isn't without mistakes. Korman presents his journey as a process that Chase undertakes and that involves conflict and some mistakes. Chase experiences conflict over who he was then and who he is now. He wants to believe there was some good in him. Chase has flashbacks of what he describes as his "wonderful toughness -- punching and shoving kids, kicking their heels out from under them in the halls," Chase also remembers "feeling important and confident and powerful. Maybe some of that came from what a jerk I was, but surely not all of it...I was a somebody in this town." Chase makes mistakes as when he accidentally hurts Joel while trying to stop Aaron and Bear as they vandalize the music room,  and he lies to the principal about what happened, backing up his friends' lie. But he also looks outside of himself to see how what has happened affects those around him, his friends, the teachers and the principal.

Eventually Chase has to choose what he's going to be - the bully or the nice guy, and who he wants as his friends. After the incident with Joel, Chase realizes that he'd rather have the new Chase's life rather than his old one back. This is shown when Aaron and Bear reveal to Chase that he was the one who stole Mr. Solway's medal.  "As I run, hot tears of shame are streaming down my face. Since my accident, I've heard a lot about the person I used to be. Never did I imagine this." His shame and desire to do the right thing overcome the threats of his friends and Chase tries to return the medal. When his attempt results in a brawl, he comes clean, accepting sole responsibility for the theft. Although the consequences maybe be severe, Chase doesn't want to go back to being the person he was before the accident. His father recognizes his attempts to be a better person. "...It takes strength to eat the blame and not rat out Aaron and Bear, especially when they more than deserve it. Or to try to make things right with Solway or even the Weber kid, whether they appreciate it or not. You're strong, all right. And stupid. But everybody has stupid moments. The trick is not to let a few bad moments cost you the game."

Chase recognizes how angry and self-absorbed he was prior to his accident, in contrast to the shame and disgust he now feels. "Back then I had such a high opinion of the great Chase Ambrose that I considered myself untouchable. Now it's the opposite. I hate myself so much that there's no way any judge could hate me more." But Chase is in for a surprise from the very people he spent years tormenting, demonstrating the importance of forgiveness and the need to recognize that people can change.

Mr. Solway, the crotchety resident of the nursing home is a mirror character to Chase. He is disliked by almost everyone there; he's rude and mean. He has his own table in the dining room and his nickname is Mr. Happy Face. He is like Chase before his head injury.  Chase thinks Mr. Solway is the coolest person he's ever met. They are "memory-loss buddies" and this leads Chase to wonder "if I blocked out what a jerk I used to be because I can't face it." As the two become good friends, Mr. Solway undergoes a remarkable transformation, moving about again and showing an interest in life and even making the difficult journey in to the court to speak up for Chase. Like Chase, he's become less self-absorbed and focuses on doing what's right.

Restart is classic Gordon Korman, with a likeable main character and a great cast of supporting characters, particularly the witty Shoshanna Weber and the nerdy Brendan Espinoza. The novel has a strong plot that's well executed with a dash of Korman humour. The novel is chock full of themes; forgiveness, redemption, the meaning of friendship, identity and how change is possible. This reader would have preferred that the story be set in high school and the characters a bit older. Overall, Restart is a spectacular novel and highly recommended. It's nice to see good, solid fiction for younger readers and one that will especially appeal to boys.

Book Details:

Restart by Gordon Korman
New York: Scholastic Press    2017
243 pp.

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