Pay Attention, Carter Jones

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A butler, a cricket match, and middle school – even if you throw in a purple Bentley – doesn’t sound like a promising start for a page turning book, but then there is Gary Schmidt. The stage is set in the first paragraph, “If it hadn’t been the first day of school, and if my mother hadn’t been crying her eyes out the night before, and if the fuel pump on the Jeep had been doing what a fuel pump on a Jeep is supposed to be doing, and if it hadn’t been raining like an Australian tropical thunderstorm—and I’ve been in one, so I know what it’s like—and if the very last quart of half percent milk hadn’t gone sour and clumped up, then probably my mother would never have let the Butler into our house.”

In a manner of speaking, the “gentleman’s gentleman” as he prefers to be called, is an inheritance from Sam’s grandfather who has recently died. The first couple of chapters abound with wit. For example, Mr. Bowler-Fitzpatrick illegally teaches the middle-schooler to drive the Bentley that Sam calls the “Eggplant” with the instructions, “If you continue turning in that direction, young Master Jones, you will reposition the row of hostas.” 

The author and me when he visited the Fay B. Kaigler Book Festival.

The author and me when he visited the Fay B. Kaigler Book Festival.

Then the heart of the story kicks in with Sam’s father in Germany - distant emotionally as well as physically, his frenemy Billy Colt, the memory that keeps cropping up of a dead brother, and his responsibilities to his mother and younger sisters. When the butler adds his demands for proper speech and behavior, Sam responds that living like a civilized person is a “pain in the glutes.” 

Chapter headings are followed by a line with cricket rules, definitions, and hints. When sister Emily pronounces cricket boring, the butler replies, “Only a dullard would believe such a thing.” Well, he had me there. Even if you share my opinion that cricket may be the dullest sport known to humankind, the book is a treat. The butler probably wouldn’t approve of my inelegant description but both he and the book’s humor are a hoot and give a lift to the pain that is the heart of the book. If you’re not in middle school, go ahead and read the book. It will all come back to you.