Me and Marvin Gardens

By Amy Sarig King. Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, 2017. 256 pages. $16.99/hardcover; $10.99/eBook. Recommended for ages 8–12.

It is the voice of Obe Devlin, the 11-year-old protagonist of Me and Marvin Gardens, at once passionate and possessive, fierce and tender, that suspends the reader’s credulity and leans him in to hear more. Obe’s sense of possessiveness arises out of a profound loss which began over 100 years ago with Great-grandpa Devlin’s addiction to liquor, which was so total, so ruinous that, in family lore, he “drank dirt.” Left with a shrunken inheritance of a single farmhouse and a couple acres of scraggly woods with a creek running through them, both of Obe’s parents are plodding wage earners in the new service economy.

Obe’s mother still tolls the dinner bell that used to resound over a lordly 175 acres to call in Obe and his older sister, Bernadette, to the last ritual of Devlin unity: prayers around the family dinner table over a home-cooked meal. Conversations over that dinner table signal a largely empty feast: querulous, resentful, at last full of confusion from that century-old loss still resonating weakly but dispiritingly. Obe, on the other hand, full of some remnant fierceness that Great-grandpa Devlin knew only to drink with, is lit and lightened with an almost physical knowledge of that loss.

Obe is a loner who spends most of his time crossing boundaries in school and around home to get to those scraggly woods and the feeble length of Devlin Creek—running mostly with construction debris from an upstream development of “spacious new homes” that is eating up the last of Great-grandpa Devlin’s patrimony. Fatefully, Obe is a Devlin who hears voices and sees with a second sight, signals which don’t simply torment and caution, but enable and direct.

The voice of Ms. G, Obe’s science teacher extraordinaire, puts into perspective the wastefulness of the contemporary world economy by sounding periodic alarms and counseling action. It was Ms. G who started the now legendary collection of one million soda can pull tabs, initiating her class of restless seventh graders to rescue a fraction of their neighborhood and sound a tocsin wider, deeper, and oddly more hopeful than the doleful Devlin dinner bell.

Annie, a fellow seventh grader, is another persistent, precocious voice in Obe’s ear. A budding geologist, Annie picks up rocks, both on and off Devlin land, to hold them warm in her palm and read their still pulsing bulletins.

Some of the things Obe sees by Devlin Creek are beyond description in a review; likewise the voices of multi-dimensional characters—such as science mentor Ms. G and school-bus buddy, fellow rambler Annie—can only be hinted at in cold prose. But Obe’s voice is so alive with nuance, so capacious, so possessed by that nowhere-to-go-but-up, hundred-year-old sensibility that suspending disbelief we believe.

And it’s about time we all sat down by Devlin Creek, that pitiful marker of loss and pointer to our common future.

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