Book Review: Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

TL;DR – Young adult novel that is not simply about love and longing but also about understanding. And how preconceived ideas can pigeon hole someone into a way that they are truly not. Understanding and kindness being the key to healing.

Summary (warning: spoilers)

Joseph Brook has had a hard life. His father is abusive and violent. His mother is not in the picture. He finished serving time at Stone Mountain for assault and taking drugs. The time he served there has scarred him deeply, and he mistrusts everyone.

Even when he found love in Madeleine Joyce and together they had a baby, which they named Jupiter (after his favourite planet), Joseph’s happiness was crushed as Madeleine died tragically due to complications during childbirth. Worse still, Jupiter was taken away.

Such hardships and tragedy is enough to crush any person’s soul but not Joseph. His sole purpose now is to find his daughter and love her with all his heart.

Which is all the more remarkable because did I mention he’s only fourteen years old?

Review

The old saying that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover is one that readers always try to embrace, but the reality is we all judge books by its cover (at least initially).

When I saw Orbiting Jupiter at the library, the cover was quite plain. A two dimensional painting of Jupiter with the title wrapped around its circumference. And when I turned the book over to look at its back cover, all I got was a black hole with some dialogue. There was no catchy blurb to indicate the story inside. Not even an indication of the book’s genre. If I had to guess, I would have said Orbiting Jupiter was a sci-fi novel, but I would have been wrong.

In the end, I borrowed the book without any idea what it was about. And I did so with the mindful purpose to not judge a book by its cover.

What I discovered was a story that was not only surprising but moved me in ways I totally did not expect.

The story is written from the perspective of twelve year old, Jack Hurd. Jack lives on a farm, and his parents agree to take Joseph into their care as foster parents.

Initially, Jack is told the following:

  • Joseph has served time at Stone Mountain for nearly killing a teacher.
  • He has a baby daughter named Jupiter that he has never seen.
  • He won’t let anyone touch him or stand behind him.
  • He won’t wear anything orange and won’t eat canned peaches.

The fact that Joseph is only a couple of years older than Jack and has conceived a daughter was enough to make me re-read the pages to make sure I understood what was happening.

The chapters that follow are written in a way that reminded me a lot of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas which also told a tragic story from the viewpoint of a young boy. Schmidt does a convincing job of capturing Jack’s young mind and his thoughts, especially how he processes the adult themes that have been experienced by his all-too-young foster brother, Joseph.

The journey of healing for Joseph is a beautiful process involving the growing bond between him and Jack, him and Jack’s parents, and a bunch of cows they milk everyday. I have since learned that cows are smarter than you realise and if you gain their trust, they love you unconditionally.

The process of healing is, of course, not without struggle. Joseph encounters bullying at school, and many of the teachers are wary of him as they have heard of his past involving drugs and nearly killing a teacher. Yet, Jack has Joseph’s back, and slowly, the preconceived ideas about Joseph’s history are replaced with understanding and importantly context of how such events fell upon him.

This leads to the remarkable reveal of Joseph’s backstory with Madeleine; a girl he meets, falls in love with and manages to get pregnant. Schmidt is not only able to write this reveal in a way that is believable, but he does so in a tender, sensitive and loving way that shows Joseph is a boy who has been beaten down by life so badly, yet somehow still maintains an integrity and will to survive. It is easy to judge a young boy callously for getting a girl pregnant. But the lengths to which Joseph wants to take responsibility for his actions and do the right thing by Madeleine and their baby daughter, Jupiter, indicates a maturity beyond his years.

A maturity of strength that he holds onto no matter how much his abusive father and his time in Stone Mountain tried to beat it out of him. The reason for his attempt on a teacher’s life is also linked directly to the tragic news of Madeleine’s death during childbirth (a moment he was not able to be there for because Madeleine’s parents prevented it).

Joseph is, by no means, pure. He knows he’s made a lot of mistakes and has let his emotions drive him into harmful decisions, but this demonstrates what happens when he has no one else to guide him. When a child is neglected, abused, and mistrusted, that makes navigating the pitfalls of youth almost impossible.

Thankfully, Joseph becomes part of the Hurd family. Jack and his parents show to Joseph the compassion, kindness and understanding that has been absent for most of his too young life. The welfare cheques they receive for Joseph are put away so that he can attend a college; Joseph has shown a strong aptitude for mathematics and literature. Jack’s parents also make attempts to organise visitation rights for Joseph to see Jupiter.

Everything is on the up and up until Joseph’s manipulative father appears once more.

Schmidt’s writing is simple, evocative and incredibly powerful. So much so that I devoured its pages even though deep down I sensed a dread, yet I couldn’t stop. The bitter pill of the ending was like the confusion of the beginning of this story. I had to re-read it to make sure I understood the tragedy, and when I understood it, the magnitude hit me like crushing boulder.

But after every storm there is sunshine. The final chapter a bittersweet ending that had me in tears both happy and sad. What more can you ask for in a story?

I am very glad I did not judge this book by its cover.

5 out of 5.

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