Olive's Ocean by Kevin Henkes; Greenwillow
Books: New York, 2003; $15.99
Olive’s ocean should be sold with a complimentary bag of Kleenex. I could tell from the beginning that this wasn't going to be The Boxcar Children. I must admit that I was really prepared for the worst. I've read soooo many books that are supposed to touch your heart and are just boring and predictable. This is not the case with Olive's Ocean. You see, Kevin Henkes is a true writer. He's not some sappy poetic writer wannabe. He has this way of writing that's plain but still very powerful. I play the cello, and when I just play a note really in tune and whisk the bow across the string neatly, it sounds just as good as when I wiggle my fingers a lot and do all these fancy flourishes. This lachrymose writing has an elegant simplicity that really works. And I'm not talking about the Lily's Purple Plastic Purse Kevin Henkes anymore. (Yes, it is the same author.) This new Kevin Henkes is more grim and sentimental. Just try to picture one of those perky and cute little mice having their classmate, Olive, being run over by a car, almost drowning on a vacation at their near-dead grandmother's beachside house, and being horribly betrayed by their boyfriend. Since the grandmother will die soon, she and our red-haired protagonist, Martha, have talking sessions about each other every day, and through talking with Granny and reading dead Olive's diary, Martha evolves into a writer. She writes this haunting yet beautiful poem that is even better if you haven't read the book because it's just a chaotic jumble of a bazillion thoughts plopped on a piece of paper. I love that. She even plans to write a book, but we'll talk more about that later. At the beach, Martha finds love with the grandmother's neighbor, Jimmy, who turns out to be a total creep.
One thing that Kevin Henkes did take with him on the path to this tear-jerking read from a world of five-year-old mice, though, was his fabulous understanding of a kid's brain. Only Henkes can capture the feeling of the last day of a trip. I certainly know that feeling, considering the millions of trips my overworked parents are always taking the family on. Haven't we all experienced that sensation of "this is the last time I'll sleep on this pillow, the last time I'll walk through this door, the last glass of orange juice here . . . ?" I always feel like I have to do something special on the last day, but at the same time I want to remember what it was normally like here. I'll never forget choosing the last-dinner restaurant. Whether to pick a new, exciting one, or the boring, humdrum one we went to every day. (Being the more boring, humdrum type, I always choose that second option.)
But back to Olive's Ocean, there's only one thing that annoyed me. This is the type of book that you turn a lot of pages afterwards looking for more, and you yell obnoxiously to the poor book cover, "What? That's it?" (scaring the cat off the sofa). I am still not at peace as I write this review. What happened to Martha's book? Is Grandma dead yet? Did Martha keep writing? If you read this book, you won't find out. Don't worry though, it's still worth your time. Olive's Ocean is the type of book that makes you lean back and sigh. I felt so lucky to know that all my friends are with me, that my life is stable and good, and that I don't know any boys named Jimmy Manning.