Sunday, July 26, 2009

"Sometimes he'd tell me the myths that go with the constellations, or we'd talk about who was the better general, Odysseus or Patton" p 42.

Heart of a Shepherd by Rosanne Parry made me cry twice. That's not really a trait I look for in books, but, hey, that's later on, lest it be a turn-off for you. Before all that, Heart of a Shepherd made me laugh and cheer out loud. Full of endearing characters, it was just what I was hoping to read over the holiday weekend.

See, I was headed to Spokane, in eastern Washington. My betrothed's (yes, betrothed, if you missed the updates on Twitter or Facebook) family lives there. It was 4th of July. Heart of a Shepherd looked both patriotic and like the topography I was headed to. Also, it was short. And sometimes, you just want a short book. One that lacks a little commitment.

Brother (that's what everyone calls him) is counting down the months until his officer father returns from combat in Iraq. In the meantime, he's the man of the ranch with his aging grandparents while his four older brothers are off at school or stationed elsewhere, and a barely known artist mother in Italy. Brother, being the youngest, is the only one not somehow involved with either the Army or ROTC. Everyone else knows just who they are and what they will do with their lives, but Brother can't really see himself as a soldier or a rancher. And those are about the only things he knows.

Brother is a charming and thoughtful boy who purposefully crumples up his perfectly done homework (to keep up appearances) and has read all the dragon books on his shelf - so he steals ship books from his brothers. He's shouldering a great deal of responsibility and handles it seriously, but appropriately, for a kid his age - there is the necessary worry and fear that would be inherent in that situation. He also personifies his chess pieces as his loved ones - and purposely loses because he can't bear to kill his grandpa's queen (being grandma). Adorable.

There was a lot of honesty in this story. It felt like real people in real situations. While religion was portrayed in the best of light, this isn't an "inspirational fiction" book (keep reading, I know that phrase makes many of you shudder). There was a really awesome priest (all the characters, save grandpa, are Catholic) and Brother's grandfather's a devout Quaker. It's the same kind of versatile combination we found in Hattie Big Sky: safe for the wholesome-seekers and entertaining for the heathens. There was no blatant didactics that overshadowed all other features of the story, there were no conversations with, or beseechments to, God, just a quiet religion that served as the foundation of identity for several characters. Or perhaps this is exactly what inspirational fiction should be.

Basically, as the worst kind of Catholic (lapsed) who regards religion with suspicion, this book didn't piss me off AT ALL.

I especially loved the grandparents; the chess-playing grandfather, the mechanical wiz grandmother. Both veterans.

I truly have nothing bad to say about this book, and you do know how much I like to balance these overly positive reviews with something negative. I mean, it can't be THAT good, right? *shrug* I'd love to see a sticker on this. It's probably a shoo-in for a Christopher Award, and here's a hope for a Newbery (honor, I'd imagine) from my direction (but what do I know? A: nothin'). I really need to do a negative review. I miss being snarky.

Oh, wait, I DO have one complaint. I couldn't tell the four older brothers apart. They all blended together into lovable mush (clearly, not a huge deal for me).

Anyway, give it a go, it's both enjoyable and a good one to have in your arsenal. It's solidly middle grade, I'd say 3rd-6th.

Here's some quotes, in case you were on the fence:

p 2-3: "Rosita's my queen, of course. She's a fifth grader up at the school and my best friend's sister. She can birth a lamb and kill a rattlesnake with a slingshot, which is what I look for in a queen. Plus, she's as pretty as a day in spring, and she laughs when I'm the one talking."

p 27: "
The lambs aren't supposed to have names - only horses and dogs are allowed to have names - but I call them Frodo, Merry, Pippin, and Bilbo. I know better than to call one Sam, because Sam is my favorite Hobbit in the whole story."

p 30: "I reckon my grandpa's the only Quaker member of the National Rifle Association. he's a dead-serious pacifist and the best marksman around. he's gotten coyotes, cougars, and even a full-grown bear. No trophy antlers cluttering up our parlor, though. It's not the Quaker way to shoot a vegetarian."