Sunday, June 2, 2013

Review: Wringer, by Jerry Spinelli

Wringer is aimed at around the same age group as Jerry Spinelli's Newbery Award winner, Maniac Magee, but it has a more cohesive narrative. The fact that this is, in essence, an animal story will make this more enjoyable for all age groups, even though that animal is a very unusual one. The novel has some dark themes, as suggested by the cover. While friendship is a major theme, abuse is another underlying theme - namely the abuse that we put up with because we believe it is for our own improvement. Wringer is about a boy who feels compelled to do something that terrifies him.

Wringer has two plots that merge together. Both revolve around the main character, nine-year old Palmer. Palmer's desire is to become initiated into a group of boys that include the obnoxious Beans, his sidekick Mutto, and the acquiescent Henry. Palmer's mother despises these boys and wishes Palmer would befriend the nice girl across the street, Dorothy. But moms just don't get it. Sure Beans treats Palmer like dirt and gives him a cruel nickname, Snots, but the important thing is to be a part of the group. The guys take Palmer to receive The Treatment from an older boy. This Treatment involves getting punched in the arm ten times, so that Palmer has a bruise that lasts a good week. Sure it's painful, but it's nothing compared to the satisfaction of being part of the "in" crowd. The bruise serves as a badge of honor. Now Beans, Mutto, and Henry are best friends of Palmer's.

The other storyline involves Pigeon Day at the annual Family Fest. Five thousand pigeons are captured for this event, for the purposes of being shot for sport. The person who shoots the most pigeons wins a golden pigeon trophy, one of which proudly sits on Palmer's fireplace mantel for the day his father won it. The shooting event raises lots of money for the park, and it serves as a great attraction, however, Palmer dreads this day every year. One part of the sport involves boys, aged ten, who run out to collect the bodies of the downed pigeons. If a pigeon is still alive, it's the job of these boys to wring its neck and kill it. One simple twist to put the bird out of its misery. Palmer has nightmares about the first day he witnessed this. Worse, it's expected that all ten-year-old boys will become wringers, and Palmer fears nothing more.

So things take an unexpected turn when a pigeon begins to visit Palmer's bedroom every day. This is when things begin to change for Palmer. He starts spending less time with his friends, because they are vicious pigeon-haters. In fact, Beans relishes the thought of becoming a wringer so much he tortures helpless animals in preparation. Palmer is afraid that if Beans knew about his new pet pigeon, Nipper, that would spell the end for the bird.

The story of friendship that Spinelli tells between the Palmer and Nipper is surprisingly effective. One usually doesn't attach sentimental feelings to a pigeon, which is usually referred to as a rat with wings, but Spinelli gives the bird personality. I have no doubts that there are kids who, after reading this novel, will want a pigeon for a pet. Spinelli inserts pigeon facts throughout the novel, facts that don't really enhance the story but help bring the bird to life. The way he describes Nipper's actions suggests Spinelli has a special fondness for pigeons. Such as the fact that they walk, where most small birds hop. Or the way they nod their heads as though they are the most agreeable creatures on the earth. Spinelli's description of Nipper reminded me of Herman Melville's discussion of whales in Moby-Dick, which are viewed with awe and affection. Spinelli paints the lowly pigeon as though it is just as grand as the magnificent whale.

The novel does begin to move in predictable fashion. Based on the plot elements I have shared, you can probably guess with a good degree of accuracy where the story heads. There are moments towards the end where the story moves very slow as it makes its trek towards its inevitable conclusion. Still, this is a very enjoyable book overall. It uses lots of humor and provides good insight into the thoughts and feelings of a nine-year-old boy. This book is a testament to how our love for an animal can cause us to grow as a person.

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