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The Young and Reckless

Book Review: Sonata #1 for Riley Red by Phoebe Stone


Published September 24, 2003 at 7:46 p.m.

Recall some favorite fictional characters from your childhood and you'll probably find a few memorable misfits among them. Young readers seem drawn to characters on the outside looking in. Perhaps the outsider speaks to a sense of not belonging that even the most popular kids sometimes feel. The payoff in the misfit's story comes when she earns acceptance or, better yet, comes to accept herself for who she is.

Middlebury author Phoebe Stone's new book for 9- to 12-year-old readers, Sonata #1 for Riley Red, features a band of five misfits. Their misadventure together turns them into veritable outlaws in 1960s Cambridge, Massachusetts. The resulting tale is as rich in action as it is in quirky characterization, offering something to the 9-year-old with a taste for plot twists as well as to the 12-year-old just beginning to spin into a torpor of self-conscious angst.

Set in and around lively Harvard Square, Sonata is narrated by 13-year-old Rachel Townsend. The daughter of a former jazz musician turned live-in superintendent of 87 Brattle Street, she describes her house as a "three-dimensional Advent calendar." Author and illustrator Stone brings this microcosm to vivid life, window by window, door by door, as Rachel visits colorful tenants. She also maintains a friendship with one her own age, Alfred "Woolsey" Pontiac.

It is Rachel's and Woolsey's friendship with two other neighbors, however, that sets events in motion: the wealthy brother-and-sister team of Desmona and Riley McKarroll -- "Red" Riley for his curly red tresses. Dressed in a tuxedo jacket over a T-shirt, Riley is a proto-boho figure discovering Bob Dylan. Although older than the others, he's very much his sister's partner in crime and, by virtue of his driver's license, the guy behind the wheel of the getaway car whenever one is required.

As ringleader, Desmona is the most compelling character. The McKarrolls' poet mother, we learn early on, drowned in Walden Pond. She went down dressed in white, taking along pages of her poems. While Desmona mourns her mother's loss, she does so with her own poetic panache. Attuned to life's impermanence, she is wildly spontaneous and champions the cause to do "one extraordinary thing." This bedevils stepmother Gretchen, a former Miss West Germany who doesn't "get" Desmona at all.

Few stepparents, parents -- or other kids, for that matter -- would know what to make of a 13-year-old girl who urges her friends to eat vegetarian, organizes protests whenever the school cafeteria serves veal, and takes it upon herself to find homes for all the cats in the Somerville pound. Today Desmona could sit on the board of PETA.

No, make that Earth First! Early in the story, Desmona is horrified to spot a chained-up baby elephant in the background of a newspaper photo taken at a nearby zoo. With Riley at the wheel, she and her friends set off to free the animal. Riley, old enough to know better, is motivated in part by a zeal (probably hormonal in nature) to visit the summer home of Christina Talbot, who lives near the zoo. The plot's intrigue hinges on whether the kids will free the elephant and, if they are successful, what they will do with the creature.

Desmona's charisma is a magnet for wallflowers Rachel and Woolsey, who are easily drawn into her crusade. Still, Rachel and Woolsey are well defined and deep in their own ways. Each confronts a significant obstacle in getting on with young life. Rachel, a young composer, is suffering from writer's block triggered by "what I saw in Copley Square." This trauma remains a mystery through most of the story. Rachel also has a mad, unreciprocated crush on Riley.

Woolsey's frustration is that he can't hit puberty, no matter how hard he tries. The indignity of being short is exacerbated by the rigors of looking after his father, Sergeant Pontiac, who alternately watches the Red Sox on television from his wheelchair and relives one fateful day on the beaches at Normandy. Of all the characters, Woolsey stands to lose the most if the elephant caper goes sour, since a social worker has already begun to question the stability of his household.

While the plot of Sonata #1 for Riley Red is a bit of a stretch, young readers will likely suspend their disbelief without hesitation. Any kid who has ever created a mess without a clear exit strategy will relate to this story. Readers may be underwhelmed, however, by the ending, which is a bit pat for a story so rich with complex characters. The future of the elephant and Rachel's crush on Riley are resolved too tidily. Likewise, the big Copley Square secret to which Rachel alludes is unlikely to be surprising to any youngster tipped off -- through books, television or life experience -- about where wives sometimes go, all gussied up, when they don't go where they say they're going and the thrill has gone out of their marriage.

Ultimately, Sonata #1 for Riley Red is the story of a journey, not an arrival. Along the way, author Phoebe Stone -- whose previous children's books include All the Blue Moons at the Wallace Hotel, When the Wind Bears Go Dancing, What Night Do the Angels Wander and Go Away, Shelley Boo! -- illuminates an enduring truth about American youth culture. While in-group members tend to bond along lines of similarity -- fashion sense, socioeconomic status, the right home address -- the misfits, when they find each other, tend to bond along lines of difference. That is, while all members of a loser group bear the mark of unpopularity, this frees them to appreciate each other for who they are as individuals, not as members of a herd.

Expect Stone's rascally ensemble to invite young readers of all types, interests and dietary habits to vicariously join a group of rebels bound for trouble, and all the rewards that come with it.