Book review: The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood

(cover courtesy Headline Review)
(cover courtesy Headline Review)

 

Expectations.

They form the cornerstone of the way we approach life – how fulfilling our careers will be, how our relationships will flourish and grow, how we will love our parents, siblings and children, how rewarding out everyday lives will be.

And naturally they are rarely lacking in positivity or aspirational good – after all, who besides the dark souls among us, would expect the worst?

The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Woods, is a profoundly moving book about what happens when those expectations, framed in the most glowing way possible, dim to next to nothing and we have to figure out a way forward.

“Burdened”as we are by our unmet expectations, it can be hard to know if what we wanted from life can be retrieved or if that’s even possible.

This is where we need often need someone to act as a catalyst, an unexpected presence in our life who gets us talking, thinking, feeling, in ways that may have eluded us in the past, or been buried so deep for so long that we forgot we ever thought or felt them in the first place.

The 11 year old boy who turns up on 104 year old Ona Vitkus’s front step one day to do her chores, part of his Merit Badge requirements for Scouts, is just such a person, a meticulous young man who is obsessed with The Guiness Book of Records.

Through his studious completion of all of Ona’s chores – she complains that all of the Scouts before her present helper failed to finish their tasks as instructed – and his wide-eyed curiosity about the aged woman’s life, Ona begins to open, to divulge secrets that she’s never told a soul before.

“He’d been right to fear coming here: the boy was everywhere. Quinn had never wanted children, had been an awkward, largely absent father; and now, in the wake of the boy’s death, he was left with neither the ice-smooth paralysis of shock, nor the crystalline focus of grief, but rather with a heart-swelling package of murky and miserable ironies.” (P. 13)

A friendship forms and as the boy gathers together a slew of details about Ona’s life – one steeped in disappointment but also rare moments of joy and aliveness, a state of being that has evaded her in her latter years – they form a delightful, rare friendship that reminds Ona particularly that there is living to be done.

One task in particular that the boy sets for Ona – to be the oldest licensed driver in The Guinness Book of Records –  slowly but vividly reminds her that she has retreated from life, becoming a cranky old woman who has set her expectations aside in favour of simply filling in the days.

So she’s understandably disappointed one day when the boy simply fails to show, a pattern that repeats for a few Saturdays until his dad, Quinn Porter, a a 42 year old musician who’s failed in his expectations for his role as an involved, loving dad, to complete his chores for the allotted number of weeks, after which he’ll go back to his itinerant life of playing gigs at nearby pubs and subbing in as a guitar player for a Christian rock bond.

What follows is a growing friendship that becomes the heartfelt core of this remarkably touching book, a friendship that grows to include Quinn’s ex-wife Belle, her boyfriend Ted (who was also the boy’s Scoutmaster) and a number of minor characters who come into their orbit.

 

 

Remarkably, though the book is without a doubt a testament to the power of unexpected friends to restart the stalled expectations of our life, and it does evoke some slight semblance of Anne of Green Gables or Pollyanna changing a person’s circumstances completely for the better, it is a richly, detailed, all too real book that looks grief – it is revealed very early on that the boy dies unexpectedly of a one-in-a-million heart condition when he’s out biking one morning – squarely in the eye and asks if any good can come from these apocalyptically-dashed expectations?

That the answer is “YES” in this instance isn’t twee or coerced; rather through the gentle power of Woods’ unhurried prose, which lets relationships develop and lives mend and change at their own authentic pace, we come to realise that happy ending are the stuff of movies-of-the-week or giddily upbeat tomes.

Life can, it turns out, be revived, restarted and expectations renewed and emboldened, even in the most hopelessly grief-stricken of situations, and it can happen in the most gloriously unexpected of ways.

“Why, she wondered, at this late date, had the Almighty deigned to drag her back into the fray? She’d been doing just fine on her own. Just jim-dandy. Then he sent that boy, setting into motion a fireworks of possibility – that long-dead sensation of possibility – that she was simply too old to accommodate.” (P. 209)

The One-in-a-Million Boy balances a beautifully nuanced line between heartwarming and grimly truthful, bringing together the yin and yang of life in a way that rings true and makes sense.

True, things work out well for pretty much everyone but the getting there is hard at times, confronting, especially for Quinn and Ona who have to re-examine what they wanted for life and work out whether it’s even possible to aim for any of those things anymore.

Or whether they should simply toss it all aside and start again?

Either way, their lives will never be the same again, a good thing for two people who had stalled, despite the best of intentions, and who had carried the weight of dashed hopes and dreams, in Ona’s case especially for a considerable amount of time, for far too long.

No, letting go of soured expectations, lost aspirations and fractured dreams isn’t easy and involved a whole lot of existential pain that most of us will shy away from if it’s attacked head-on.

But it is amazing how disarming the actions of one list-obsessed 11 year old boy – his collections of ten records fill the book as do his recorded conversations with Ona meaning he is a welcome presence throughout the book – can be and how in the most unexpected of ways he can indirectly restart the lives of those nearest and dearest to him, and how expectations, long dormant, thought dead, can be revived and perhaps live once again.

The One-in-a-Million Boy is a gem – rich, true, heartfelt and unflinching, a vividly-etched, deeply-affecting reminder that life doesn’t end just because we give up on it and that if we’re willing, it can be made new again in ways that will surprise and delight us, and perhaps restore that faith in the ability of expectations, no matter how optimistically aspirational, to be made flesh as we first intended.

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