Saturday, January 9, 2021

Reading Through History: Just Like That by Gary D. Schmidt (2021)

Meryl Lee Kowalski is devastated when, between seventh and eighth grades, her close friend, a beloved character from The Wednesday Wars (2007), is killed in a tragic accident. Unable to stand the thought of returning to Camillo Junior High School, she enrolls in a girls' boarding school where Mrs. MacKnockater is the headmistress. Mrs. MacKnockater is sympathetic to the boarding school students and also to a young man named Matt who is on the run from danger but has sought refuge at Mrs. MacKnockater's house. As Meryl Lee and Matt both face their individual fears and forms of pain, they also turn toward each other in friendship and perhaps a bit more.

I have to admit that, after Schmidt killed one of my favorite middle grade characters of all time in the first chapter of this book, I was almost not going to read the rest of the story. As a one-time creative writing student, I admire his willingness to take a risk, but as a reader who counts The Wednesday Wars in her top 10 children's books of the last 20 years, I felt like this was a cruel way to open the book, and though the rest of the story turns out to be wonderful, I still think the character in question died in vain. Schmidt could have had Meryl Lee mourn almost any loss; I would love to hear the author's thinking behind his decision.

All that aside, however, because Schmidt is an author whose books I consistently love, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. The book was so engrossing that I wound up reading it all in one night, staying up until after 2 a.m. to finish, and I couldn't bring myself to give it fewer than five stars. The writing in this book is amazingly vivid. It's not flowery, but the descriptions are almost deceptively evocative. Without realizing it was happening, I built up images in my mind of Meryl Lee's school, her dormitory, Mrs. MacKnockater's house, and all the people and places Matt remembers from his previous life. Schmidt also does a nice job of balancing tension and hope. There are lots of very difficult moments for each of the characters, but there is never sense that they are insurmountable. Gary Schmidt really effectively infuses this story with heart, and it becomes impossible not to love the characters. Were he to kill one of these characters, I would be just as devastated as I was over the death that occurs in Chapter One of this book.

My recommendation to Schmidt fans is to stick with the book. It's definitely reasonable to be angry over a death that may seem gratuitous, but it would be a shame to miss the rest of this wonderful story because of that. If you've never read The Wednesday Wars, my suggestion would be to read that first, and then read Okay for Now (2011), and only then pick up Just Like That. Reading this book immediately after The Wednesday Wars would be kind of emotionally torturous, I think, as would reading Just Like That first. But do read them all. Schmidt is a brilliant writer even if I don't think his big writing risk has quite paid off. 

Thanks to Clarion Books and Edelweiss+ for the digital review copy.

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