I flat-out adored this book - I wanted to kiss its whole face. It's also the first one I've read where I really think the committee totally shit the bed on the whole "children are the audience" part of the criteria. As one Goodreads reviewer aptly put it, "the story is subtle as heck". It is so subtle - it is woven together out of hints and echoes and allusions. There were things I didn't catch until my second reading, and I am generally no slouch in the catching-things department (okay, I very often am a slouch in the catching-things department, but things like irony, and when something is a flashback in a tv show, which a lot of people have issues with, they really shouldn't be allowed to show flashbacks without the "5 years ago" tag, it's too confusing).
The criss cross reference is to the paths of the many pre-adolescent characters converging, diverging, glancing off of each other and sometimes failing entirely to meet. It is also the name of a radio program a few of the characters listen to while sitting in someone's father's truck on Sunday evenings - the radio program is clearly referencing the movie Strangers on a Train, but none of the characters know this; the program is about juxtaposition - unusual music, humorous skits and "what do you get when you cross a (something) with a (something else)? jokes", which is a beautiful little microcosm of the whole book, but has nothing to do with any of them murdering anyone.
A Midsummer Night's Dream is also a strong undercurrent - Dan, a football-playing character who sometimes acts like a decent human being and often is a mean or rude ass, who Perkins likens to Nick Bottom, the weaver who is turned into a donkey in the play. She says he is "under a spell, conferred
by a magic jersey and a powerful potion of lucky genes and emerging hormones", and speculates whether he will "learn
certain lessons, involving humility, compassion, respect, and independent
thinking", or "remain
a large, furry, willfully stupid animal". At Seldem Days, a sort of town fair, Dan shows up with Meadow, crushing the dreams of Hector, a sweet and thoughtful character who takes guitar lessons in a church basement with Dan and Meadow and had been hoping to connect with her himself. Dan is casually cruel to Hector, and then looks at another character with disdain. The next passage reads "There
was a barely perceptible subdermal movement near his tailbone. There was a
slight bray in his voice. It was all
still reversible." I don't want to underestimate ten-to-twelve-year-olds, but am I wrong in thinking this is pitched just a little too esoterically? If the play had been performed somewhere, or discussed, even, it would be different. But it isn't.
It's almost like Perkins was so determined to craft a whimsical, tender, poignant coming-of-age story that she throws every stirring, lovely weapon in her arsenal at it - there are Conversations in the Dark, there is a Japanese Chapter in which there are many haikus - Hector goes into a sponge state and has a satori in the first damned chapter!
I loved it all. I love the scene where Debbie and Patty strip to their underwear in the secret space made by a rhododendron bush and use smuggled seam-rippers to lengthen their bell-bottoms while the rain is "softly piffing on the leaves all around", because their mothers are "stranded in the backwaters of a bygone era" and "You
could argue and argue, but they weren’t going to get it. At some point you just
had to go change your clothes in a bush.”
I love the missed moment between Debbie and her mother, where Debbie is trying to tell her mother how lost and empty she feels after her brief, sweet first love experience, and her mother might have told her about the boy who bought her all the dog figurines in the box in the closet, but instead "their secrets inadvertently sidestepped each other, unaware, like blindfolded
elephants crossing the tiny room," and her mother went to see whether she had turned off the burner under the hard-boiled eggs.
I love the missed moment between Debbie and Hector, when Hector gives Debbie back her necklace, which has traveled through various ways and means throughout the town and through many pockets, and they both see the new person the other has become that summer, but not at the same moment - "their
moments were separated by about a second. Maybe only half a second. Their paths
crossed, but they missed each other. The hardworking necklace couldn't believe it. It let out an inaudible,
Yep, you read that right - at the last, the necklace becomes suddenly sentient. It's a ridiculous, glorious mess. I loved it, but to me it reads like a kids' book written for adults. I am unutterably grateful that it did win the Newbery Medal, though, (in 2006, I forgot to check until just now - although it reads like it takes place in the 70s), otherwise I likely never would have come across it.