The Way to Stay in Destiny by Augusta Scattergood

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Augusta Scattergood is a children’s book author and reviewer and a former librarian. Her 2012 book Glory Be was a Texas Bluebonnet Award nominee. She tells us she has “devoted her life and career to getting books into the hands of young readers.”

The hero of Scattergood’s latest YA book, The Way to Stay in Destiny (Scholastic, 192 pp., $16.99, hardcover; $6.99, paper; $10.99, Kindle), is an orphan named Thelonious (Theo) Monk Thomas by his hippie parents. It’s May 1974, and Theo has fallen into the hands of his mother’s brother, Uncle Raymond, a Vietnam veteran who has been working in Alaska since his war ended as a mechanic. He learned this skill during his time in the Army.

Theo’s parents died when he was four years old. His grandparents had raised him until their health failed, and then turned him over to Uncle Raymond, whom Theo “had never laid his eyes on.”

Uncle Raymond moves Theo from Kentucky to Destiny, Florida. In Kentucky, Theo had been in the same class with the same twelve kids forever. Now Theo and Uncle Raymond live in a boarding house that doubles as a dance studio in which a large piano tempts Theo who shares the musical skills of the man he was named after. Until Uncle Raymond takes over Theo’s life, the boy had been destined to be a famous musician or perhaps a big leaguer. His uncle has other ideas, and lays them down as laws.

Uncle Raymond carries everything he owns either in a heavy tool chest or in his old Army duffle bag He has a bum knee and complains it about constantly. When he wants to get Theo’s attention, he punches him in the arm, hard. He speaks abrupt, non-standard English.As in, “Don’t you know nothing?  It ain’t no ocean.”  And he tends to holler.

Uncle Raymond used the bus ride from Kentucky to Florida to lay out his rules. He reiterates them in the rooming house. “Things are different now,” he says, pounding his fist into his palm over and over again.  “You got to follow my rules.”

The primary source of conflict is the piano. When Uncle Raymond finds Theo playing it, he slams the keyboard cover on the boy’s hands. “Nobody but a fool wastes time on music,” he says.

At this stage of the novel I wondered what could happen to Theo and Uncle Raymond that would be uplifting or redeeming. Nothing much good can be said about Uncle Raymond. He seems to me to be straight out of a Dickens novel.

Uncle Raymond got his new job in Florida thanks to the intervention of an old Army buddy. “The boss is coming in early to show me the ropes,” he says. “ Least there’s somebody left who appreciates what we both fought for.”

Uncle Raymond seems permanently marked by his Army service. He demands that Theo “makes up the bed tight with that military fold thing.” He also insists that Theo does the laundry and folds the underwear in squares. Do we ever find out why Uncle Theo behaves so hatefully toward 6th grader Theo?  Yes, we do; it relates to the culture wars of the sixties.

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Augusta Scattergood

Theo’s parents were antiwar protestors. Raymond claims they spat on him and called him a baby killer when he came home from Vietnam. Theo’s mother, he tells the boy, went off to a “fancy college, met your daddy, she didn’t care a thing about me. I was far off, fighting for my country. He was carrying signs, spitting on soldiers. Didn’t matter what our family always stood for.”

When Raymond goes off to sleep, Theo says, “Before long, my uncle’s yelling about jungles and guns and spit.”

In the final chapter, Theo says that his uncle “might be coming around.” He even laughs, saying “I’ll never get used to that sound.”

The changes in Uncle Raymond seem abrupt and unrealistic. He has been depicted as an extremely deranged Vietnam veteran. At least he isn’t a drunk or drug addict and he does have a job. But he shouldn’t be raising a child.

This book leaves the young adult reader with a narrow view of the Vietnam War, of hippies, and of Vietnam veterans. That is not a good thing.

—David Willson