He taught me to throw and catch a softball, to cast a fishing lure high and true using the house roof, to hold a hammer and pound a nail straight, to let the saw do the work when cutting a piece of wood, to plant tomatoes properly, to identify trees and plants in the northern woods as well as sit in silence for hours watching and listening, to use the sun and stars as a guide, to have a keen sense of humor and to love reading. When this man, this guide and this tower of strength, was weakened my world went off kilter. When a child of any age sees their dad in the hospital, it's one of the very hardest things.
For most it's an unfamiliar position. The true difficulty lies in not being able to help a person who has always helped you. Maggie Mayfield has just turned twelve years old. For her birthday she receives a leather-bound journal. This book, The Meaning of Maggie: a novel (Chronicle Books), written by debut author Megan Jean Sovern, is a memoir of her eleventh year.
My dad won't stop beeping.
At this moment Maggie is alone in the hospital room with her dad. With respect she recounts the resilience of her mom and the beauty of her two older sisters, who are clearly not as brilliant as she is. We learn of her life goal of becoming President of the United States but also her need to find bravery more than ever.
As we enter the body of the book after the prologue Maggie takes us back a year and a day to her eleventh birthday. Although the morning begins with a celebratory gift of some stock in Coca-Cola and a trip to the local newspaper office, a family meeting on their arrival home reveals huge changes for the Mayfield family. Dad will no longer be going to work at the airlines and Maggie's mom will be working full time at a hotel. It is a reversal of money-earning roles. Her dad's Multiple Sclerosis (as yet unnamed in Maggie's presence) has advanced.
Within thirty-seven pages Maggie's love of academics (she wished school was all year on her birthday), crush on the new boy, Clyde, education of all things Neil Young (her parents were flower children in the sixties) and parent's affection for one another are clearly evident. Page after page, chapter after chapter we become further acquainted with the shifting family dynamics; revelations on Take Your Daughter To Work Day, fear, strength and positive spirits when her Dad's is found on the floor after a fall from his chair, Dad adjusting to his teenage daughters and their boyfriend's presence, holidays, a visiting grandparent, and Maggie's New Year resolution. It's the family's insistence on keeping Maggie's life as close to normal as possible coupled with the progression of her dad's disease which draws the family strings even tighter.
Questions are asked and answered. Disappointments are replaced with triumph. Life-changing moments are reaffirmed. A family pulls themselves up by their bootstraps because that's what they do. It has been and always will be their motto.
What author Megan Jean Sovern does through carefully constructed dialogue, Maggie's side comments as footnotes at the bottom of pages, and detailed descriptions of place and specific moments is to make us one with this brilliant, logical, funny and curious girl. We can't help it. We become Maggie.
This family, the Mayfield family, is facing an extremely difficult challenge; one which will alter all their lives forever. Regardless we readers leave this book knowing Maggie's mom and dad love each other as much as they have loved life, her eldest sister Layla, still in high school, is more vulnerable than Maggie ever knew and Tiffany, the middle daughter, despite being the bane of Maggie's existence has moments where makeup, boys and being popular are set aside. Megan Jean Sovern gives us a family with which we can identify, a family for whom we cheer and a family we respect and admire. We can't help it. We love this family.
Here are some passages from the book which illustrate Sovern's writing. Her conversations between people are realistic, reflecting the people's personalities. Each situation is depicted so clearly we feel as though we are there.
I had saved it from the pit of Mom's closet last November while on a mission to uncover my Halloween candy stash. I never found the candy, but I discovered the scarf and it was definitely meant for me. And my neck.
I double wrapped the scarf and reached for my notebook and my glasses, which were another great find from Mom's closet. They were a pair of Dad's old glasses that Mom never let me wear because she said they made me look like a cereal killer, which I didn't understand because I loved cereal too much to kill it.
After school, I couldn't wait to tell Dad about my progress. I almost ran all the way home from the bus stop, swung open the door, and yelled, "Dad! Dad!"
But my yell was met with a "Shhhh! Shh!"
Dad was watching TV on mute while Mom was fast asleep on the couch. She must have gotten off from work early. He waved me over and motioned to me to roll him to the laundry room, where a mountain of laundry was waiting to be washed.
"I just wanted to tell you about the boy," I whispered.
"Tell me about it while we start a load of laundry," he whispered back.
"But that's Mom's job."
Dad shook his head. "Not anymore. We're going to help her, okay? Where's the detergent?"
I stopped him and picked up the right container. "I think it's the one that says 'detergent.'"
Dad laughed quietly. "Right."
"Why are we doing this?"
He wheeled up right next to me. "Because love makes you do crazy things, remember?"
The Meaning of Maggie: a novel by Megan Jean Sovern is remarkable in its portrayal of the essence of family demonstrating the power of love and bravery in the face of adversity. As a character Maggie makes us feel...everything...through our laughter and our tears. This is a marvelous middle grade book.
Please follow the link embedded in Megan Jean Sovern's name to access her website. There you will be able to read about her, this story and the basis for this book. Here is a link to a post at the Chronicle Books Blog.
Meaning of Maggie by ChronicleBooks