Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Slob by Ellen Potter

Author Ellen Potter moves away from the fantasy world of Olivia Kidney and details the realistic life of twelve-year-old Owen Birnbaum in Slob. Owen is a 7th grader that has a hard time fitting in with his peers in school. Not only is he the fattest kid in school, but he is also very intelligent, which results in him being constantly bullied by his classmates.

Consequently, Owen has very low self-esteem and describes at the very beginning of the book just how nervous he feels about attending school every day. "The thing is, when you are fatter and smarter than the national average, practically every day is like the first day at a new school." And to make matters worse, Owen's phys. ed teacher, Mr. Wooly humiliates him in front of his class on a daily basis, making him do exercises that he knows he cannot complete on his own. All while boys are snickering and making comments, resulting in Owen doing all three of the following: 1. Turned red as shrimp cocktail sauce; 2. Lost control of all the muscles in my face; 3. Cried; 4. No, Sobbed; 5. No, bawled like a three-year-old in Wal-Mart. Despite it all, Owen manages to collect himself and move on. Until, his oreo cookes diappear from his lunch, and believes that class mate Mason Ragg is the thief - and will stop at nothing to catch him in the act.

Despite the flaws that people criticize Owen for, he seeks to create a contraption he names "Nemesis" using parts he and his sister Jeremy take from demolition sites. In some way, working on Nemesis gives Owen that outlet to forget about his troubles and believes that its success will somehow make his life better, while trying to figure out how to capture radio waves from the past. And maybe, by making Nemisis successful he will be able to view what was on television years ago, when it seems as though is life made more sense.

Unlike Owen, his sister Jeremy (real name Caitlyn) belongs to a group called GWAB, Girls Who Are Boys, is very bold and brave. Nima, their Buddhist neighbor, provides advice for Owen during his troubling times, stating, "when you stay calm around your enemy, you become stronger; when you do a good thing, good things come back to you."

Ellen Potter slowly reveals the real reason why Owen is building Nemisis. About three quarters of the way into the book is when Jeremy and Owen have a conversation about it's purpose that is fully revealed. Their parents, who used to own a deli, were murdered - and it isn't until Owen tells this story to Nima that I fully understand Nemesis. In a pivotal conversation, Jeremy states, "I was just thinking. Even if you see the person who did it, even if the police can find him and catch him and stick him in jail, it won't change things. Not really. It won't change things for us, I mean. Or for Mom and Dad. It won't make them less dead." (p. 141)

It is through this that Owen ultimately realizes that he can't bring his parents back, no matter how hard he tries. "SLOB," which is written on a small piece of paper, is finally revealed at the end of the story - deli shorthand for salami on an onion bagel - the last thing his mother wrote from the order of a customer, the customer who killed her. (p. 197) Owen rips the paper apart and throws the pieces into the Hudson River. He leaves the story with thoughts of a prayer, "That the man who murdered my parents has someone in his life who thinks he's a better person that he actually is. Ok. That is really the best I can do." (p. 199)

Owen is a character that many readers will be able to empathize with; and the more we learn about him, the more sense we are able to make of his situation and understand where he is coming from. I truly admire him for his strength as a young boy to put up with the tragic loss of his parents, while also trying to deal with the constant pressures of fitting into the middle school environment. Although we find that Owen had to deal with the loss of his parents, it is clear that he gained a certain confidence through his experiences and the people in his life, his sister, Zelda, who we find adopted Owen and Jeremy after their parents passed, and Nima. Owen even discovers Mason Bragg has endured his fare share of humility in his life, and they discover that they have more in common than what meets the eye. Owen finds closure, and even ends up losing the weight he gained in the past two years, making his old clothes to be even too big for him.

Ellen Potter's exemplary writing style in Slob takles more than the disappearing Oreo mystery at the novel's beginning. Readers find themselves focusing in on more in-depth issues of dealing with loss, love, and the confidence to move on. And while there is its fair share of seriousness, she has the ability to weave in moments of humor, sarcasm, and sadness - a balance that makes the characters as well as the plot highly believable and relatable. At the books end, readers will feel satisfied as well as hopeful for Owen, as he assumes a certain confidence in himself assuring that he will be okay.







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