Apologies for the long-overdue installment. There was work and honeymoons and moving house and saying goodbye and (still to this moment) dissertations to be written. None of which are very good excuses, but hopefully serve as explanation. Aside from the fact that as I wrote the small essay below, I came more and more to realize that the things I love and feel for The View from Saturday could be the workings of a doctorate degree, if not an entirely new book in and of itself. Happily for you, I’ve been working in editorial all summer — I’ll spare you the full ms for the clean-cut version here, only asking that if you have or are or will be reading along, tell me about it! Let’s say we’re at Sillington House. Tea time is always 4:00 PM.
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Here is the conflict: you want to be the same as everybody else, and you want to be entirely different from everybody else. You are a dazzling phenomenon of human potential without equal. Also you are just as ordinary and just as normal and just as cool as all those other people, too, particularly your peers, obviously. Two totally contradictory things, and you would like acceptance for both. Please (and thank you).
Here is the problem: you are twelve years old, barely past childhood but still too young to grow up. Maybe you are living in your siblings’ shadows or coming to terms with your parents’ divorce or spending the summer in a retirement resort. Whatever the situation, you are twelve years old in the middle of a bunch of other twelve year olds, none of whom seem to have any of the same anxieties, one of which is
“Julian Singh,” he said, extending his hand. No one (a) introduces himself and then (b) extends his hand to be shaken while (c) wearing shorts and (d) knee socks and (e) holding a genuine leather book bag on (f) the first day of school.
I mean, you’d hesitate to return the shake too, right? Acceptance doesn’t seem to be much of an option. Unless your curiosity gets the better of your insecurity, which is exactly Ethan’s downfall. “I managed to say nothing until the bus had turned left off Gramercy and was back on Highway 32, but then . . . ‘Did you buy the Sillington House?’ I asked.”
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Two-thirds of the way through The View from Saturday, just as Noah and Ethan and Nadia and Julian have officially become The Souls and Julian — in the flashback, flashforward storytelling style — has answered for acronyms at the Academic Bowl, the plot of pieces comes together for one sustained series of events. Epiphany High School is putting on the musical Annie for their holiday season and Ethan suggests Nadia’s dog Ginger for the part of Sandy. The Souls set about an intense training routine in the lead-up to auditions and, with Ethan’s directorial prowess and Julian’s legerdemain, Ginger (being a genius of her genus) easily steals the stage from seven other wannabes. But the drama coach also nominates an understudy: Arnold, a large yellow lab very unfortunately owned by Michael Froelich, best friend of Hamilton Knapp, the two of whom are every reason middle school has ever been hell. Julian worries having Arnold as an understudy will make Froelich feel like an underdog, and with Ham in the mix it’s almost certain mischief. On the bus to watch the debut matinee, Julian overhears Ham’s plan: tranquilizer and laxative . . . sent biscuits . . . star dog . . . pass out like a mop. Instant coma.
At the auditorium, Julian escapes backstage just in time to see the drugged bacon bits on the table — and Arnold all gussied up for the part. Fearing the worst, he races towards Nadia only to learn that Froelich’s dog has won the matinee spot as reward for hard work and good attendance. Ginger is safe. The treats meant for her have been gifted instead to the understudy. Julian has to make a decision.
The show goes on, to great applause and occasional disruption from Knapp and his gang (which earns an audience-wide reprimand from the drama coach, words I have remembered quietly to myself in far too many similar situations: “I am sorry that you have not learned at home how to act in public. I am ashamed for you because I know you are not ashamed for yourselves.”). The students filter out to various vans and buses to take them home, and Julian has to make another decision.
Ethan, Nadia, and Ginger had not yet come out of the auditorium. Noah and Mrs Olinski had gone to speak to Mrs Korshak. I stood alone. There was something I wanted to do. When Knapp had started that ruckus, I had momentarily regretted my decision to save Arnold. I was still so angry that I was about to violate one of the cardinal rules that Gopal had taught me.
. . . Gopal had taught me that magicians never reveal the secrets of their trade to laymen. Gopal always said that magicians who were interested in letting people know how clever they were were not really magicians. “Don’t ever destroy the wonder,” Gopal had said. “Let your magic show you off, not you show off your magic.”
I knew that Hamilton Knapp would find out soon enough that Arnold, not Ginger, had been chosen for the afternoon’s performance. He would find out soon enough that his trick had not worked. I knew that I should never reveal to Hamilton Knapp that I had saved Arnold from the fate he had meant for Ginger. I knew all of that. Yet I moved toward the Vet in a Van. Dr Knapp was behind the wheel, waiting for her turn to pull out. I walked around the back of the van onto the sidewalk on the passenger’s side. I tapped on the window and motioned for Ham to roll it down. I reached into the open window. He pulled away from me but said nothing.
“What’s the matter?” his mother asked.
“Your son has something growing out of his head,” I said as I pulled two bacon-shaped doggie treats from his ears. “I think these belong to you,” I said as one by one I dropped the rest of the drugged biscuits on his lap. I turned and walked away. I was glad that I had chops. Gopal would forgive me.
So I’ve just spent twenty minutes typing to make sure I tell you about a magic trick with some dog treats. We could have much more easily discussed the symbolism of sea turtles or the beauty of Julian’s book bag transformed, admittedly more lovely passages. Why the Sandy saga? Because this, I think, illustrates the heart of the whole thing and the reason I will recommend this book to anyone who asks and some who don’t and why I want you to go home and share The Souls with every child you can find (and most adults, for that matter). Because what Julian does here is so totally twelve years old while simultaneously well beyond his wisdom, a perfect balancing act. He is showing off, yes — and who wouldn’t? But he also shows a small kindness, a second chance. Julian could have exposed Knapp’s wickedness to the entire school, and in returning the hurt Hamilton has caused him all year long, he might have been justified. He could have felt himself vindicated; told a teacher, told Ham’s mom, mediated a public punishment. Instead Julian quietly shows that he has seen Hamilton for who he is in that moment. And in allowing him that small mercy, he also shows him that he could yet become someone better.
It is the tiniest act of redemption, and the story never does say if Hamilton Knapp turns to repentance, nor do we get any sense that Julian feels he has done some deeply merciful thing (and we shouldn’t; he’s twelve and naturally unaware of his own goodness). But it twists the thread of the entire story to a stronger braid, and we see, suddenly, that the point is to see. For Ethan to look beyond Nadia’s angst and see her capacity for luminous love. For Nadia to forgive Noah his unbearable know-it-all attitude and see him as the perfect partner for a good spar. For Noah to pass by Mrs Olinski’s wheelchair and see her as an expert source for a whole host of new information to add to his never-ending databank. For Mrs Olinski to depreciate Hamilton Knapp’s intelligence by seeing his cruelty, for passing by Julian’s odd formality to see his kindness. And ultimately for Julian to have met them all and seen the potential of their individual strengths to form one unbeatable team. This, everyone, is the view from Saturday. Not only a pleasant country scene framed by a window in the dining hall at Sillington House, but looking at a person and choosing to see them for who they are — to recognize their own individual brand of dazzling phenomenon — and then be the kind of person that allows and even encourages them to change and to grow and become ever better.
I worry now that I am writing a little too “one with the cosmos,” as my dad would say. I do not mean to paint this a saccharine vision of tie-dyed loving and daisy-chain emancipation. This book is about a journey, and acceptance, and self, but The View from Saturday falls far and beyond the typical happy ending the modern world would have us write. Too often we celebrate individuality as an end-all; countless bildungsroman center on some highly quirky, endlessly bullied, impossibly onliest character who, against all popular people/family divides/scholastic challenge/dens of dragons come to recognize their own gifts and accept themselves as themselves no matter what anyone else has to say, cue music and the self-made statue in the square. Which is not totally wrong, but really makes up barely a part of the answer, and only in very small doses. Because wouldn’t it be better if we were reminded also to seek this same epiphany in others? To accept our potential as endless and then extend that grace to all? There is far more rooted, richer ground to tread.
It is interesting and no coincidence that Konigsburg chose to call them The Souls. Whatever the creed or religion or no belief at all, the word suggests inner depth and an outward reach. It is the standard in describing there being something other, something more, than the immediately visible. There is a moment that I love (just before the dogs-and-drugs bit, incidentally), where Julian starts a sentence with “Since I had become a Soul.”I like thinking about that, how to finish that sentence for myself. Since I had become a soul. I hope I learn how to answer the way Ethan did, when he gave in to conversation on the bus that first day of school. When he chose however begrudgingly to step outside himself to allow haven for another. It is no instant transformation, but there were beginnings in the choice that return to him ten-fold — that return to all of us when we choose the same.
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Something in Sillington House gave me permission to do things I had never done before. Never even thought of doing. Something that triggered the unfolding of those parts that had been incubating. Things that had lain inside me, curled up like the turtle hatchlings newly emerged from their eggs, taking time in the dark of their nest to unfurl themselves.