Sunday, November 24, 2013

Book Review: The Blossoms and the Green Phantom by Betsy Byars (1987)

Junior Blossom has had pretty terrible luck with his inventions. First, his wings failed him and landed him in the hospital with two broken legs. Then, his coyote trap caught him (and later Mud) instead of the coyote he so desperately wanted to see. Now, he’s in the midst of building a spaceship called The Green Phantom, but it just isn’t going according to plan. While Maggie practices trick horseback riding so she can join her mom in the rodeo and Vern hangs around at his new friend, Michael’s house, Junior begins to worry that he will never do anything to make his father proud. While Junior’s mother, Vicky, tries to rally the family to help Junior launch his spaceship successfully, Pap has also gone missing, as he has fallen into a dumpster and needs to be rescued. Once again, as the family is kept apart by unforeseen circumstances, they deepen their understanding of their need for one another.

Of the three Blossom books I have read so far, I think this one is my favorite. There is so much emotional depth in each character’s experiences in this story that I feel as though I now know each one intimately. Byars does a beautiful job of describing each child’s feelings about their deceased father, as well as their feelings about one another. Though Vern is not an especially touchy-feely kid, the reader sympathizes deeply with his concerns that Michael won’t like visiting his house because of how different it is. Maggie’s excitement over being asked to join the rodeo with her mother demonstrates how much she loves her mother, and also how much she wants to be a part of her father’s legacy. Junior’s desire for attention and his need to make his dad proud also tug at the heartstrings and remind us how young Junior still is, despite all his bravado and big ideas. Pap is perhaps the most interesting character of all, because we get to see his weaknesses for the first time, as he sits inside the cold dumpster with an orphaned puppy, contemplating what will happen if he isn’t found, while Mud sits injured and powerless to help, just outside.

This book is filled with beautiful descriptions. Here are just a few of my favorite brief passages:

  • On page 42, Vern reflects on the differences between himself and Michael, and his certainty that Michael’s involvement in any project will make it a success:

    Now that his mother had included Michael in the project, he figured they couldn’t lose. After all, Michael and his family had every single thing there was in the world. Michael’s father’s workshop was like a hardware store. Michael’s room was like the sporting goods department at Sears.

    Though the text never comes right out and says that Vern is ashamed of his family, or that he wishes for more material things, this passage gives the reader that sense in just a few words.
  • On page 63, Pap watches the sunset from the dumpster:

    Pap watched the sun go down from inside the dumpster. It was a big red sun that hung over the purple ridges of mountains for a long time. Then it dropped with amazing speed behind the peaks and out of sight.

    Pap felt a chill touch his bones.

    Again, Byars uses just a few short lines to convey both the coolness of the evening as the sun disappears and Pap’s growing fear about never being rescued.
  • On page 72, the Green Phantom is launched for the first time:

    It gave Junior a strange, scientific feeling. He knew the Phantom wasn’t real. He knew it was only air mattresses and garbage bags and Day-Glo paint, and yet seeing something that strange and beautiful made him feel - well, maybe it wasn’t a scientific feeling where everything happened according to law, this was more of a science fiction feeling where things happened the way you wanted them to happen.
    I think the line about the difference between scientific feelings and science fiction feelings is my favorite of the entire story.
This book is so easy to overlook, especially editions with older covers, but despite the odd title and dated illustrations, this is an extremely well-written and touching story about a family coming together to support its youngest and oldest members in times of great need.

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