by Holman, Felice. (Aladdin, 1986 ISBN 0-689-71066-6) Novel. 117 pages. Grades 4+.
This book was reviewed by Carol Otis Hurst in Teaching K-8 Magazine.
His only friend has just been killed in an accident when Aremis Slake is chased into the subways by a gang of kids. Since his life above ground is hazardous and without love, Slake moves into an abandoned room adjacent to the subways. Jeered at in his surface life as a clumsy, worthless individual, Slake's subterranean solitary existence proves him to be clever, competent and creative. He learns to survive in the depths of the city and in the subway terminals for four months.
When his hideaway is discovered and destroyed, both Slake and the reader are ready for life above ground. This is an inner city survival story which makes an interesting contrast to the more usual wilderness survival stories.
The characters of Slake's world make an interesting study. First, of course, there is Slake himself: small, poor vision, lousy self- concept, but with the soul of an artist. We see glimpses of that artistic soul even before he leaves the surface when he ties leaves to the tree. Within the cave, he uses trash to make beauty. How does such an individual, so mistreated by others, discover the beauty within himself?
Minor characters in the book are worth investigating. Some of them are never named. There's the lunch counter waitress whose name we never learns but who hands out extra food and the lead to a job, the "red-faced lady" who brings him clothing. Those with names, of course, include Joe, the nearest thing Slake had to a friend, and Willie Joe Whinny, the subway motorman who wanted to be a sheepherder. The skill of Holman is such that these characters are not merely cardboard vehicles to help Slake survive. They have some depth and implied lives apart from the book's action.
The author uses foreshadowing well in the story as is evidenced in the first line: "The thing that happened when it finally happened, was so perfectly logical that it should not really be considered surprising". Later, when events in the underground world are winding down, she says, "“So the day of the sweater - the end of the beginning.”
There is some symbolism in the book, as well, or at least recurring images: the bird, for instance, appears three times: Slake dreams of swallowing a bird; one flutters in his chest when he is afraid and he identifies himself with the bird he sees when leaving the hospital. Willie Joe's parallel plot of "On Another Track" is, at least, a double entendre, if not a symbol. The very locale of most of the book, the underground world of Slake, is a symbol for the unseen, even surreptious existence of many disenfranchised existences and the title of the book invokes the image of a limbo, being a nothing in a nothing existence.
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