Fans of Catherine Ryan Hyde will adore her new novel featuring, as protagonist, an eleven-year-old boy named Stewie. Stewie’s life has been tough. His parents died when he was a baby, his older brother Theo has cerebral palsy, and his sister Stacey is raising them alone on her salary as a nurse. She works nights, and while she loves her brothers dearly, she has little extra time to parent.
When Stewie’s grandmother was alive, things were better. She raised chickens and sold the eggs, and while she wasn’t a very loving woman, Stewie’s expectations of family were minimal as he hadn’t had loving parents at any time in his life. She was the only adult with even a modicum of caring in Stewie’s life. Upon her death, Stewie takes over caring for her chickens and selling their eggs. The money helps with household expenses. He loves the chickens, and they seem to fill a void in his heart, his incredibly huge heart that contains an endless capacity for caring and loving.
We soon see an example of that enormous heart. One of his chickens starts acting ill, so he takes her to the local veterinarian. He is appalled when a woman in the waiting room suggests that since the chicken is old has stopped laying, she should just be killed and eaten. In fact, when the vet tells Stewie that the chicken, Mabel, has had a long life and is just very old, and that she will probably die soon from natural causes, Stewie is bereft. He is determined that Mabel will not die alone, so he brings her into the house and into his bedroom. He makes her a box and wraps her in a blanket. He stays home from school so that he will be there for her at the end.
Stacey is concerned that Stewie takes things so much to heart. He feels that it’s his job to care for everyone, including the chickens. She arranges for Stewie to see a psychologist, hoping that will help Stewie deal with his emotions. We also learn that Stewie has difficulty reading. When Stewie ventures outside his usual egg route, he meets Marilyn, an older woman living in a house with a single mother and her young, spoiled daughter. Marilyn somehow reminds Stewie of his own grandmother. Slowly, gradually, Hyde shows us how their relationship progresses to the point that Marilyn starts to care for Stewie. Their relationship and how it changes each of them is the story—and it’s beautiful.
Part of Hyde’s brilliance as a writer is her ability to create unlikely relationships that not only work, but that are emblematic of the relationships we ourselves build with those around us. She creates emotional ties between people who are disparate, but each needy in his or her own way (and aren’t we all needy in our own ways?). We learn about Stewie from his thoughts and actions, but also from Hyde’s liberal use of dialogue to propel the action forward. When Stewie is concerned that chickens are not laying eggs, he realizes that he didn’t ask them to do so quite nicely enough. “Please lay,” he whispers over and over, at least once to each bird. “Please. I’m sorry if I was impolite before. I should’ve said ‘please.'”‘
The story deals with loss, and in addition to losing his parents at such a young age that he has no memories of them, Stewie does have memories of the grandmother whom he has lost more recently. How we deal with death, what happens at the end of our lives, how we grieve, whom we grieve with—all these issues are thoughtfully considered and treated in these pages.
In fact, Stewie shares his question, which is a universal question, about love and loss with the psychologist when he asks: “Why even start liking people if they’re just going to die?” And the response is the ubiquitous one in which we tell ourselves it’s “better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.” Small comfort, really.
Another thing I really admire about Hyde’s writing is her ability to show empathy and emotion through the human connection to animals. Stewie believes that he can communicate with his chickens, not because they “talk” to him, but because they understand his emotions. He believes that his chickens know he cares about them, and that’s why he asks them to lay eggs instead of demanding it. He believes that Mabel dies after she hears Stacey say something about Stewie’s life returning to normal after Mabel is gone. Those of us who love animals, or who have loved an animal, will be able to connect with Stewie’s emotions and feelings on a deep level. We, too, know that our dogs, or cats, or horses understand what we feel for them and want for them. They feel our love.
Hyde also raises the question of family—and who makes up family. Is family only determined by blood relationships, or is family those whom we choose to include in our close group of loved ones? Through Stewie’s eyes, we realize the importance of having loved ones around us as well as the importance of reaching out to those who are in need. No one is perfect in this story, just as in real life none of us is perfect. But flaws and all, we are all worthy of love. And flaws and all, we are all able to share our love, just as Stewie so beautifully demonstrates.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.