Teen Books That Have Something to Say
by Kathleen Karr
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,(2004)
Barefisted battles at their best
$5 purse to a 4-round winner
Likely lads invited
I'd read that sign a hundred times. This time I stopped and read it again. Sure, I was small. But I was fast. Everybody said I was fast. Maybe I could hold up for four rounds. Give just enough back to the other fellow... Five dollars was more than I made in two weeks. With five dollars I could get a pair of boots without slapping soles that let in the weather. I could buy Ma a new dress so she wouldn't be ashamed to show her face at mass. I could bring home some extra food—more than just a hunk of meat—to keep that hungry look out of the kids' faces for a few days... There were too many things I could do with five dollars. Wasn't even worth continuing teh list. Before I could change my mind, I pushed through the door into Brodie's Saloon.
--The Boxer, Kathleen Karr, p. 6
Fifteen-year-old Johnny Woods has tried to be the man of the household, ever since his father left two years earlier. But in 1880s New York, with no highschool diploma, Johnny has to work in the sweatshops, where he hardly makes enough money to feed his family. He and his family live in the slums, and he dreams of getting out of there.
Then he sees a sign for boxing—and a money reward—that changes his life. Although boxing for money is illegal, Johnny tries out--and gets put in jail for six months. In jail, he meets a famous middleweight boxer, now retired—Michael O'Shaunnessey. Michael takes Johnny under his wing, feeds him well, and trains him to be a top notch boxer. Johnny already had raw talent; he just needed some intense training, support, and advice, and he gets all this, and a way out of poverty, from Michael.
This is an incredibly well-crafted book. Right from the first paragraph, we begin caring about Johnny and his plight. We want him to find a way out of poverty for himself and his family—and we want him to win against the people and circumstances that try to stop him. Johnny is a character we like and can look up to; he is generous, kind, compassionate, and keeps trying to make things better for himself, his family, and other people. He never gives up, even when the odds are against him, and he tries to do the right thing. He is also intelligent and talented, and begins as an underdog—and as a result, we care deeply about what happens to him.
Johnny speaks with a strong, powerful voice, as does O'Shaunnessey, and we see Johnny grow and change throughout the novel. There is powerful imagery, the dialogue sounds right, and the characters feel very real. Although Johnny's siblings are not fleshed out, they are not the focal point of the story. However, Johnny's mother could have had a little more fullness to her, but she is a great character.
Under Karr's expert writing, the setting and time period come alive in this story, and feel authentic. There is not one boring place in the book. The story draws us in, and holds us there completely. It feels as if the Karr really knows the world and what it feels like to be there. The ending is also satisfying. This is a thoroughly enjoyable, satisfying read. Highly recommended.
-Added September 2004
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