Monday, September 17, 2018

The Dollar Kids by Jennifer Richard Jacobson, 2018

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When a family buys a house in a struggling town for just one dollar, they’re hoping to start over — but have they traded one set of problems for another?

Twelve-year-old Lowen Grover, a budding comic-book artist, is still reeling from the shooting death of his friend Abe when he stumbles across an article about a former mill town giving away homes for just one dollar. It not only seems like the perfect escape from Flintlock and all of the awful memories associated with the city, but an opportunity for his mum to run her very own business. Fortunately, his family is willing to give it a try. But is the Dollar Program too good to be true? The homes are in horrible shape, and the locals are less than welcoming. Will Millville and the dollar house be the answer to the Grovers’ troubles? Or will they find they’ve traded one set of problems for another? From the author of
Small as an Elephant and Paper Things comes a heart-tugging novel about guilt and grief, family and friendship, and, above all, community.
(416 pages)

This is the second book by Jacobson that I've read; the first was Small As An Elephant, which I found to be sad and meaningful but in a way that was pretty generic and forgettable. I saw some promise in it, though, so when I was offered the chance to read The Dollar Kids I decided to give it a go.

And I'm very glad I did, because it hits all the right notes this time. There's sadness as Lowen struggles to cope with Abe's violent death, abandoning his artwork in mourning, but that sorrowful plotline is woven gently into a broader story about moving, small-town life, and struggling to fit in. I thought it was all very well done.

I suppose I'm biased to like this book from the start simply because it provides a relatively realistic depiction of what it's like to be the new kid. The Grovers and the other Dollar families are initially viewed with curiosity, and then suspicion. Some of the kids are incorporated into the town life, if they find an in with the established friend groups; the rest are consigned to outsider status forever. Lowen's mother's Cornish Eatery is a delightful place, which customers quickly grow to love, but the business struggles because the locals feel social pressure to frequent the restaurant run by a woman who has lived in the town for ages.

I've never experienced this same level of outcast status, but I moved across state lines six times before my eighteenth birthday, so I certainly know what it's like to be the new kid–and I can say that the feeling of being a "new" person is awful, and it takes forever to go away (and sometimes never does).

Many other reviewers will probably dedicate more space to the gun violence aspect of the book, so I won't discuss it too much other than to say that I thought some potentially controversial material was handled very smoothly. It's a tragic story, and we see the emotional impact of the loss firsthand through Lowen. I think the family's revulsion toward guns is presented logically and with no real chest-thumping rhetoric so it hopefully shouldn't offend gun rights supporters too much. Also, one of the Dollar families is a lesbian couple with children, but that isn't really a big focus of the story, either.

All in all, The Dollar Kids is a really great book. It's the kind of book you read and get thoroughly absorbed into, without worrying too much about the mechanics of it. Read it and enjoy it. That's really all I can say.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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