Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Tall Story (spoiler alert)

While I most often enjoy reading older (classic) books--or award winning children's books, I do occasionally investigate some of the modern kids books that are recently published. One day at our local library, I was browsing the "Young Adult" section and was rather disturbed to find that every single book on display sounded horrible and completely devoid of any wholesome instruction. The "Children's" section was a relief. I'm not sure how they make the distinction between "children" and "young adult", but the latter could certainly learn something from the fiction aimed at their younger counterparts.

Today, I just finished a recent book, published just last month in the USA (maybe sometime last year in Britain?): The Tall Story (by Candy Gourlay). It was unique in several ways from the books I've read recently. Most noticeably, it is told in first person by two different people. Telling alternate chapters of the book are Andi, a 13-year-old tomboy who is a short but skillful basketball player in London; and Bernardo, who is 8 feet tall, 16-years-old, and considered to be a reincarnation of the legendary giant Bernardo Carpio by his hometown of San Andres in the Philippines. It certainly seems that these two characters could not be more different. But they are, in fact, half siblings. Bernardo's father died when he was a baby, and his mother had to move to London for a good job while her sister and brother-in-law took care of her son. For 15 years she had been trying to clear immigration papers for her son, and in the meantime, remarried and had a daughter--Amandolina. (Andi, with and i, she always insists.)

Another unusual thing about this book are the relationships between characters. Andi, as a young teenager in London with two parents that work all the time, is predictably rebellious and independent. And yet, it's rather a surprise that no friends from school and no confidants ever figure by her side for sympathetic support. Her character stands very well on her own, thank you very much.

Once again, Bernardo's side couldn't be more different. He is extremely respectful to his Aunt and Uncle and indeed to all of the "Brothers" and "Sisters" in San Andres. In telling his part of the story, he jumps back and forth between past and present. And we see that even though he is tall, he often feels the weight of the world on his shoulders--perhaps because all the people of San Andres expect him to "save" their town from the earthquakes that roll through. Once he even felt that, because of her energy and spark, Andi seemed taller than he! Another point of difference: Bernardo has a best friend, Jabby, who is almost as crazy about basketball as Andi. They're "thick as thieves", where one goes, the other is surely not far away. But when Bernardo leaves, there is a terrible earthquake and Jabby is among the missing. What could Bernardo do all the way in London?

Perhaps the most surprising relationship (at least for someone reading a lot of kids' books recently) is that of the parents. "Mum" and "Dad" have a very strong, loving relationship, working well with each other in spite of the fact that they're both nurses and work ridiculously long shifts at the hospital. I can't say how refreshing that is! It's so good to read a book about a family that has all its elements in place. Mother and Father still in love, rebellious daughter learning that the world is bigger than her room and her high school, siblings learning to love and sacrifice for each other as their worlds collide. Perhaps this element of loving and learning to be a family after 15 years of being apart is what makes this book so charming to me. 

So Andi is in London, telling her half of the story, and Bernardo is in San Andres, telling his part. But everything changes when Bernardo's immigration papers finally come through, and Andi and her parents meet an 8-foot giant boy at the airport, dressed in clothes held together by Velcro. When Bernardo leaves the Philippines, earthquakes start again in San Andres. When he arrives in London, Andi has to share her brand-new bedroom with him, he overflows the bathtub, and gets an automatic spot on their new high-school basketball team. He says over and over again in his Philippino accent, "I am the blame. I am the blame." What do you think will happen when a wishing rock is thrown in amongst the mess?

The wishing rock is woven through the whole story. It's a superstitious/magical element that gives the whole story an dash of fantasy. But you never really know if it's just coincidence or if the wishing rock really is magical. The bully girl, Gabriella, wished on the stone for Bernardo to become a giant. Bernardo himself wished on the stone to be taller. Again, he wished to go to England to be with his family. And finally, Andi wished to be point-guard for the Souls (the all-boys basketball team.) All these things actually happen in the story. But. There's no real way of knowing if it was magical or not. These things may have happened with or without the wishing. But one message is clear: be careful what you wish for. You never know how your wishes will effect everyone else that you love. Each wish has unexpected, bad events surrounding its fulfillment.

On the whole, I loved this book for how it combined two different lives and cultures together into one family--that truly loved each other and desired to be one whole family. And I'm so glad that Candy Gourlay paints that desire as a good and beautiful thing. Even though the Mother-daughter relationship is not the best, there is a lot of good ideas and lessons to be found in this book (besides a completely fun and interesting story.)


  1. I am often aghast at the absolute trash filling young adult sections in libraries and bookstores. Poor parents--how are they supposed to know where to find good stuff, especially if they've not had a notably good education in literature?

  2. What Joy said.

    (Hopefully our children will have a better chance of reading the good stuff.)