Wringer, by Jerry Spinelli (1997) E

Date read: 10.11.10
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

Adapted from the back cover:

“In Palmer LaRue’s hometown of Waymer, turning ten is the biggest event of a boy’s life. It marks the day when a boy is ready to take his place as a wringer – the boys who wring the necks of wounded pigeons at the annual Pigeon Day shoot. It’s an honor and a tradition. But for Palmer, his tenth birthday is not something to look forward to, but something to dread. Because – although he can’t admit this to anyone – Palmer does not want to be a wringer. But he can’t stop himself from getting older, any more than he can stop tradition. Then one day, a visitor appears on his windowsill, and Palmer knows that this, more than anything else, is a sign that his time is up. Somehow, he must learn how to stop being afraid and stand up for what he believes in.”

Jerry Spinelli, like many otherwise excellent children’s book authors, most often falters when he leans too heavily towards explicit didacticism. Wringer, with its themes of resisting bullying and peer pressure, could easily fall into this category, but I was extremely pleased to find it instead an organic and moving story. Occasionally a character’s behavior might be a little too conveniently suited to the needs of the plot and message to be credible, but overall – I couldn’t put it down, cried twice, and found much of the writing startlingly beautiful. One reviewer observed that Wringer benefits from being less “antic” than Maniac Magee (my longtime favorite Spinelli novel), and as much as I love Maniac’s picaresqueties, I agree that Wringer makes for a quieter, more intimate emotional experience.

Above all, the main characters are written with great psychological acuity. Spinelli evokes Palmer’s half-articulated fears both vividly and believably, and his relationships with his mother and his friend Dorothy are deeply charming and hilarious and true-to-life. In general I appreciated that Palmer’s parents are so gentle and empathetic, especially now that I’m actually old enough to sympathize with the adults in children’s books, and not just regard them opaque and rather less interesting than the protagonists.

Another favorite element: the deep wonder and precision with which Spinelli describes Nipper, Palmer’s pigeon friend, as well as Palmer’s own eagerness to learn about pigeons:

“He had heard that pigeons were dirty, filthy, nothing more than rats with wings. He looked and looked, but all he saw were plump, pretty birds with shiny coats. He was especially fascinated by how they moved. They did not hop, like sparrows or robins, but they walked, one pink foot in front of the other, just like people. With each step the head gave a nod, as if to say, Yes, I will. I agree. You’re right. As Palmer saw it, the pigeon was a most agreeable bird.”

“He learned that a pigeon isn’t very fussy about what it eats, because its tongue has only thirty-seven taste buds. He learned that a pigeon’s heart is about the size of an acorn. And that a pigeon’s heart, as measured against the size of its body, is one of the largest hearts in creation.”

To end, some of my favorite bits of descriptive writing:

“…nine yellow flames, plump and liquidlike, perched on their wicks.”

“All day long he was twitchy, runnerish.”

“…suddenly the sunlight was briefly snipped, as if a page had been turned in front of a lightbulb.”

Also, just because this is hilarious (possibly can be regarded as a mild spoiler):

“You don’t really look like a fish,” he said.
“Oh thank you,” she said.

Go to:
Jerry Spinelli: bio and works reviewed

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  1. Maureen E’s avatar

    Hmm. I couldn’t stand Stargirl, precisely because of that explicit didacticism you mentioned, but this sounds like it might work a little better.

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  2. Emera’s avatar

    Kakaner might disown me for saying this, as Stargirl is really important to her, but I remember being uncomfortable with it for similar reasons, though I wasn’t entirely uncharmed. I wanted to believe in Stargirl for the sake of the plot and the characters (Leo especially, obviously), but I’ve never been a huge fan of the “manic bohemian pixie girl revolutionizes humdrum man’s life” trope in movies, and Stargirl was teetering a little close to the edge of that for me. There is a sequel entirely from Stargirl’s point of view, though, so maybe that renders her a little more three-dimensionally.

    Anyway, yeah – Wringer‘s overall moral thrust is just as obvious, and as with most children’s books pretty much all of the plot movements are predictable, but it succeeded for me because he writes Palmer so believably.

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  3. Maureen E’s avatar

    Isn’t it awkward when you disagree with good friends about books?

    I agree that I wanted to believe in Stargirl, but I felt throughout like she was far too much of a plot device. I would be interested to see if the sequel changes my point of view on that.

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  4. Emera’s avatar

    Always. Luckily there are probably fewer than a dozen significant instances for us. :P

    I haven’t pursued the sequel yet, but I might for that reason as well…

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  5. Kakaner’s avatar

    I HAVE COME TO INSERT MY OWN TWO FEET AND HANDS AND MOUTH INTO THIS CONVERSATION.

    In my defense, I first read Stargirl when I was very very young and going through very difficult times… I think Stargirl was for me what Harry Potter is for other children. I read this book about this quirky girl who moves from town to town (like me! And my like 10+ public school districts) and has trouble fitting in. But she is brave and beautiful and talented and loves herself in her own way, yet is completely vulnerable at the same time. I admired her sooooooo much!!! For me, the book was about the beauty of Stargirl herself and… er… not much else. And then I would cry at the end because she had to move again…

    I mean, now I reread and I can agree with all your points, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t special and precious to me… but I have to say, I did NOT care for Love, Stargirl. Completely destroyed my wonderful magical sparkly mental perception of Stargirl =(

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  6. Emera’s avatar

    To paraphrase from our email conversation – that’s why I previously never commented on any of the above, because I knew it was beside the point of why the book and Stargirl are important to you. :)

    Reply

  7. Maureen E’s avatar

    K–I think we definitely all have those, books that are incredibly important for reasons that have nothing to do with how good or bad they are. Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword is definitely that for me, since it’s on the short list of things that kept me sane in middle school. (The other ones being my mother, my sister, and God.)

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