The Higher Power of Lucky begins with a 10-year-old girl eavesdropping on an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at which Short Sammy is telling the story of how his dog was bitten on the scrotum by a rattlesnake while he downed a half gallon of rum.
If this sounds like a strange way to begin a children's novel to you, we agree. If it doesn't, it probably means that you've read too many modern children's novels and Newbery winners. That said, The Higher Power of Lucky could be worse. The opening story is the most offensive thing in the book, but unfortunately it's also the most interesting.
This is the story of Lucky, a little girl living in Hard Pan, CA with her French ward Brigitte, her father's first wife who comes to care for her after her mother's untimely death by electrocution. Hard Pan is home to 43 people, most of them living on government subsidies, and it's a hard town, packed with weirdos, but surrounded by desert for Lucky and her friends Lincoln and Miles to roam in.
Brigitte, Lucky believes, wants to return to France more than anything. She doesn't really love Lucky, it seems, though Lucky goes back and forth trying to decide whether Brigitte is actually a good or a bad Guardian. Lucky drowns her pre-adolescent angst in scientific observation of bugs and birds, adventures with her dog HMS Beagle named for Charles Darwin's ship, and listening in to various addiction recovery groups.
All the groups regularly talk about their Higher Power, a phrase never really defined. Lucky spends a lot of time thinking about this concept, and wondering what her Higher Power might be. Frustratingly, this question is never really answered. It hangs vaguely over the whole story, and while there's an allusion to it in the final chapter, it's like a sail that never fills with wind.
Susan Patron's novel isn't bad per se, but it isn't that good, either. Many of the scenes and incidents bear little if any relation to the story, and a lot of the characters seem unnaturally eccentric. Nearly every relationship referenced or described is dysfunctional, and there are no traditional family relationships. Overall, it's a drab and disheartening story, especially for kids.
Children don't need to be sheltered from difficult stories. The world is a hard place, and many young people never know what many of us would consider a normal or good life. We have no problem with stories about such children, or with having our kids read such stories.
We do have a problem, however, with stories that pedal the lie that anyone can overcome their circumstances through the power of positive thinking or any such boring nonsense. Lucky thrives because she comes to self-realization and self-actualization, not because she really relies on any "Higher Power" outside herself. In the end, such stories are more harmful than uplifting, and tell a much different tale than any victim of neglect would utter.
Again, other than repeated mentions of the word "scrotum," there isn't much here that's explicitly inappropriate. Yet the vague existential angst that pervades each chapter (and causes kids to act more like adults too often) and the cheap postmodern appeal to inner strength and random happy endings, make this a novel that would need its own higher power to make it worth reading.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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