Friday, February 15, 2013

The Absolute Value of Mike, by Kathryn Erskine

Title:  The Absolute Value of Mike
Author:  Kathryn Erskine
Publisher:  Philomel
Year:  2011
Pages:  256
Genre:  Realistic Fiction
Themes:  Family, Loss, Belonging
Age Range:  4th-7th Grade

Summary:  from Goodreads
Mike tries so hard to please his father, but the only language his dad seems to speak is calculus. And for a boy with a math learning disability, nothing could be more difficult. When his dad sends him to live with distant relatives in rural Pennsylvania for the summer to work on an engineering project, Mike figures this is his big chance to buckle down and prove himself. But when he gets there, nothing is what he thought it would be. The project has nothing at all to do with engineering, and he finds himself working alongside his wacky eighty-something- year-old aunt, a homeless man, and a punk rock girl as part of a town-wide project to adopt a boy from Romania. Mike may not learn anything about engineering, but what he does learn is far more valuable.
I loved this book!  Erskine has created such a quirky cast of characters, each deeply flawed but with their own set of endearing qualities-Moo, who refuses to admit the limitations of age and health; Poppy, stunned into complete withdrawal from the world by the death of his son; Past, who finds that running away from loss in a small town is easier said than done; and Mike himself, who needs the nudge of an entire community to recognize his own worth.  Erskine returns to one of the motifs of her earlier work, Mockingbird, when strongly implies that Mike's dad, the math genius, is also on the autism spectrum.  In that regard, this book gives the reader an understanding of what it may be like to be the child of someone who has difficulty expressing the emotional connections they feel with others.

The detailed characterization sets the perfect foundation for the plot.  When Mike discovers that the town is trying to help a local minister adopt a small boy from Romania, at first he is skeptical.  How can this cast of eccentric, sometimes barely functioning people raise the money for the adoption before the deadline?  But then he sees the face of the boy, named Misha.  Misha, incidentally, is the Romanian version of Mike, and Mike immediately feels a strong connection with the little boy living an ocean away.  Misha becomes the symbol of everything that Mike has felt but never articulated or dealt with emotionally-the loss of his mother, his emotionally distant father, the feeling of abandonment and loneliness  and his deep-seated insecurities about his own abilities.  In saving Misha from the orphanage, Mike saves himself, and a few other people as well.

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