A girl and her cat take on the world with nothing more than a cup of tea and a good book and enough dreams to fill the universe.
This last week, I read The Planet of Junior Brown by Virginia Hamilton. To give you all a quick summary it is about a morbidly obese black boy named Junior and his friend, Buddy. Buddy is homeless and also goes by the name Tomorrow Billy to the boys that he takes care of. He calls this pseudo-family his planets. Junior is a pianist and you suspect him to be crazy throughout the whole book until you discover that he is to the point of massive hallucinations of people that don’t exist. Junior and Buddy have started skipping school and I never really could figure out why, but they still went to school by having afternoon classes with the janitor/ex-teacher in the basement of their high school. They have built a model of our solar system with the addition of a great big brown planet, Junior Brown. It also should be mentioned that Junior’s mom has asthma to the point where he has to inject her with drugs to calm her down and they have an oxygen readily available because she could die at any minute. She really hates Buddy and I think that both she and Junior delude themselves into thinking that Junior’s dad will come back for the weekend. This story is set in New York City and was published in 1971.
Add a giant brown planet that eclipses our sun in size and voila, Junior Brown.
Try as I might, I could not get into this book. At a whole 217 pages, it took me all week. I dreaded reading it. I did not relate to the characters or their lives or their problems. I thought that maybe I could relate to Junior in the piano playing, but I couldn’t. He even had an equally crazy piano teacher who had mutilated her piano trying to get rid of an imaginary guest. She wouldn’t let him play, but kept him in the hallway, tapping out the rhythm on a chair and humming the melody.
Destroyed pianos make me want to cry.
Nothing in this fictional world was something I could relate to. I am not homeless, my mom is not overprotective and ready to keel over. I am not morbidly obese and I do not take care of someone to the point of almost stalking them. I never even skipped school until I came to college and then I can count the times on one hand. Thinking back to other books I’ve read, I guess I have always found something that I could relate to, something that connected me to the characters. I couldn’t find that connection, even the tiniest string to tie me to this book.
I really wanted this magical moment and it never came.
This resulted in me feeling like a racist because I did not care about this obese black kid and his homeless friend. (Even here I struggle because I’m trying to be politically correct.) I wanted to care, but I couldn’t. My life has never been that hard and no one I know has had a life this hard. The whole thing was just so extraordinary that I couldn’t believe it. Buddy especially feels victimized the entire book because he feels targets because he’s black, but I didn’t pick up on anything that signaled he was being treated any differently from the other kids. He made himself different and I guess, in my struggle to get inside his head, I began to resent my own feelings about race, etc because I couldn’t see the problem and thought he was overreacting.
Am I racist?
There was a scene at the school with the assistant principal that made me cringe. Junior and Buddy get caught for all of their skipping and the assistant principal is telling them that they should be in school so that they can have an education and have better prospects for the future. Buddy just sits there seething, saying that “half the cats” out there with an ‘education’ couldn’t get a job. I hate this cop out response of so many people. I know people who say this or are completely satisfied with mediocrity and don’t want to better themselves through acquiring more knowledge and it drives me absolutely crazy. Maybe half of the people out there can’t get a job, whether they have an education or not, but I guarantee that having an education gives you and edge over those who don’t. Also, Buddy refuses to let Junior go to a mental health facility because he doesn’t want him all locked up. All I could see was a confused kid who distrusted everyone and selfishly didn’t want Junior to get the help he needed. While I felt this was a very realistic portrayal of human nature, I couldn’t help but be annoyed with Buddy. All he wants to do is look out for Junior and when he finally sees what should be done, he refuses and has Junior run away and become homeless with him. ARG!
If Buddy Clark was a white little kid with a tiger and parents…
So, this book frustrated me in multiple ways because I wanted to like it. I normally really like fiction that deals with outsiders or racial issues, but this was either so amazing it was over my head and I missed all meaning or was so laden with issues I couldn’t connect. I was really disappointed with myself about this book. I tried, but it didn’t work.
My relationship with Junior Brown is the same as my relationship with a rubik’s cube.
We have now moved on to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and I am absolutely loving it! Hurray for Sherman Alexi!
This. Is a pretty awesome picture.
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Brian Marggraf, Author of Dream Brother: A Novel, Independent publishing advocate, New York City dweller
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