Review posted December 16, 2023.
Clarion Books, 2023. 8 hours, 17 minutes.
Review written December 13, 2023, from a library eaudiobook.
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#2 More Children's Fiction
I already knew I love Gary Schmidt's writing. Even knowing that, this one blew me away, touching me to the point of tears in several spots.
This story is told in the voice of a 12-year-old boy. He's the smallest kid in his class, but insists he's begun with the "Beal growth spurt." His name is Hercules Beal. And yes, he's heard all the jokes about a small kid being named Hercules. He lives in Truro, Maine, which he is convinced is the most beautiful place in the world.
Herc's parents died in a car accident earlier this year, and his big brother Achilles has come back from his adventuring to care for Herc -- and run the Beal Brothers Nursery, which has been in their family since Herc's great-grandfather and his brother started it. But the school bus route has changed, and they're not on it, and Achilles isn't interested in driving Herc to Truro Middle School every day. So Herc will now be walking 22 minutes each day to attend Truro Academy for the Environmental Sciences.
His new home room teacher is a retired marine who insists on being addressed as Lieutenant-Colonel Hupfer. In studying Greek mythology, he has individualized project assignments for the class that are going to take the whole year, with regular progress reports. Herc's project is to study the Labors of Hercules, figure out how they apply to his life -- and find a way to perform them himself.
So this book is about Hercules Beal performing the Twelve Labors of Hercules. Like Lieutenant-Colonel Hupfer says, when you really look for parallels, you'll find them. It starts out simple -- instead of catching the Nemean Lion, Herc clears an abandoned house of feral cats. Many of the feats feel truly Herculean -- and Herc learns along the way that he can ask for help.
My only complaint about the book is that the assignment was too big and the labors fit too well -- how could the teacher ever have predicted that some of these labors would come to him? And a lot of them seemed like way too big a thing to put on a 12-year-old kid. Though Herc did learn that he was not alone -- and some of the touching things about the book were his reflections on what he learned from each labor.
This book is deeply sad, because of Herc's missing parents. But it's also funny, quirky, inspiring, and beautiful. Gary Schmidt is great at writing characters who are so distinctive and unique, you don't doubt for a second they're fully alive. This book is one to treasure up in your heart.