Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Gentlehands by M.E. Kerr

Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack made me want to read more from M.E. Kerr, and there was a parent on amazon complaining about Gentlehands being given to eighth graders in schools. Clearly, this was the book for me.

In the book, a young working-class boy named Buddy has started to date an older girl named Skye who comes to his resort town for the summers. She inhabits a different world from him - she goes to Europe regularly, knows about opera, drives cars most people have never heard of, and has a butler named Peacock. Buddy's dad is a cop, and his parents sneer (perhaps a bit too much) at the "fancy" things Buddy is getting interested in.

In order to impress Skye, Buddy takes her out to see his grandfather, who has a huge house in Montauk. He's only met the grandfather once or twice in his life; even his mom, the guy's own daughter, didn't see him even once until she was an adult. Her mom left her native Germany while she was pregnant.

The grandfather is a refined, cultured man who loves animals, wine and opera. He gives Buddy lots of great advice about finding his confidence and becoming the kind of person he wants to me. For a minute I thought he was going to be one of those assholes - kindly grandpas who set the main character straight about the ways of the world using wisdom from the depression (in older books) or their hippie days (in newer ones).

But since I'd already read the description, I already knew the big twist at the end: that Grandpa was once known as "Gentlehands" and was one of the most enthusiastic young Nazi officers at Auschwitz.

This book has a lot going for it - the relationship between Skye and Buddy is an interesting one (though the hot-and-heavy scene that the angry parent promised me was awfully tame, really), and I was sort of fascinated by the "life on the south shore of Long Island" stuff - people go out "clamming" and kids complain that they like spaghetti and meatballs better than spaghetti and clams. I've never been to Long Island - it's like an entire state that you forget is even there unless you live there, I think. For years I thought it was a very small place, but it has about three times the population of my own home state of Iowa. I look books that work like a window into another sort of life.

With the nazi subplot, though, the book pulls some punches. It would have hit Buddy harder if it had been a grandpa that he'd grown up loving, not one that he'd just started getting close to. And by the time the revelation comes, at which point it seems like the book is just heating up, it's actually nearly over. This book could have stood to be about twice as long, and could have explored a lot more issues - is Grandpa really as different now as he seems? About all we hear from him in response is that "Gentlehands," his old alias, is a complete mystery to him now. There was a bit of notice about people in the neighborhood debating whether they should "live and let live" now that he's old and it was a different world, and that he was "only doing his duty." That didn't go over well, of course, but could it be argued that his real crime was just being brainwashed by Hitler? Did it keep him up at nights now? Was that person he used to be really such a mystery to him now? Frankly I would have liked to have heard more from Grandpa, from the journalist who'd been tracking him down (his sister was one of Grandpa's victims), and from a lot of other people besides Buddy. However, as soon as the truth comes out, Grandpa is gone and the book is just about over.

That said, though, it's a good book and I liked Buddy a lot - I like it when the narrator of a book is a guy who isn't a geek or a variation on that character that Michael Cera always plays. Buddy is a working class kid with sort of obnoxious blue collar parents whose attempts to break away into the world of culture are probably doomed to fail. You saw that kind of narrator a lot more in 1978, when the book was published.

Like many other Kerr titles, you can get this one on Kindle. 

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