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Kathryn Erskine is fast becoming one of my favorite authors. Her 2010 National Book Award Winner Mockingbird , which I reviewed in the July, 2011, issue of this newsletter, made my 2011 Top Ten Reads List. In that wonderful novel, we find the interweaving of several themes characteristic of Erskine’s work. Caitlin, the protagonist, has Asperger’s and Mockingbird is her story; but it also deals with a school shooting and its effect on several characters and the community as a whole. Caitlin’s beloved brother and guide, Devon, was one of the shooting victims. Her struggle with “empathy” and the loss of her brother makes for a beautiful, touching, and highly recommended story.
In The Absolute Value of Mike (2011, Philomel Books), we have one more example of Erskine’s intricate storytelling and craftsmanship. Our protagonist is Mike, a 14-year-old with dyscalculia. Because his father is teaching in Romania, Mike finds that he is being sent to spend the summer with older, eccentric relatives he has never met. Surprisingly, he ends up becoming the organizer of a community effort to help a leading member of the community adopt Misha, a Romanian orphan.
Mike himself points out the irony of someone with a math disability in charge of events that involve so many numbers. Assuming that this plot is as simple as it seem from this description would be a mistake. Erskine’s mastery of weaving many levels of themes and sub-themes creates a story that, at times, is poignant, heart tugging, sad, and spiced with humor.
Woven throughout the storyline is the relationship between Mike and his father, a mathematical genius with problems of his own, especially in terms of relationships. The father wants Mike to follow in his footsteps and become an engineer — a way, he thinks, to have a closer relationship with his son. He is pushing Mike to apply to a math magnet school, something Mike definitely does not want. In fact, Mike realizes that this would set him up for failure and thus push him and his father even further apart. As Mike observes: “I’m no statistician, but what are the odds of a kid with dyscalculia — a math leaning disability! — getting into a math magnet school?”
An important part of this complex father/son relationship is that Mike so desperately wants the approval of his father. This conflict/theme/relationship alone could make for a meaningful and significant novel, but Erskine goes further. She gives us multiple stories: the interesting story of Past; of Gladys; of Mike’s great uncle and aunt; and, tying it all together, the story of how a poor community works together to raise the money for Misha’s adoption.
Integral to the structure of the novel is the naming of each chapter with a mathematical term and its definition. The math concept is then worked out in the chapter in terms of relationships, self-identity, and understanding. For example, we first learn of the relationship between Mike and his father in Chapter One: PARALLEL LINES — lines in the same plane that do not intersect. Mike and his father simply do not “intersect”; and thus, Erskine introduces one of the major themes. Significantly, in a later chapter, Chapter 29: TESSELLATIONS (which are patterns of shapes that fit together without any gaps), we see some resolution, not just in Mike’s and his father’s relationship, but among other relationships and concerns developed in the novel as well. It is important to note that the last chapter (ABSOLUTE VALUE — how far a number is from zero — absolute value is always positive) provides a significant climax and Mike’s recognition of his identity, his relationship with his father, and where he intends to go with his life. Again, I am tempted to say more — but cannot. You, the reader, must make this wonderful discovery for yourself.
Professor Emeritus Bob Seney is retired from teaching in the Masters of Gifted Studies Program at Mississippi University for Women. At conferences, he often presents a session titled “What’s New in Young Adult Literature.” Reach him at email@example.com.