Thursday, July 1, 2010

Saving Maddie

Johnson, Varian. Saving Maddie. New York: Delacorte Press - Random House Children's Books, 2010. Print.
[Book cover credit:]

Joshua sits in the choir while his dad preaches behind the pulpit. Just another Sunday until all the other guys start whispering and looking at the congregation instead of Pastor Wynn. They're looking at a woman in a really low-cut dress, too revealing for church. They don't point her out to Joshua; he's the preacher's son and wouldn't be interested. But he is, of course, and when he finally looks, he sees her. Maddie. She was his best friend a million years ago, when they were both kids and her father was the Assistant Pastor. Before her father took a lead pastor position out of town making their lives jump to different tracks. Because while Joshua is "too good" to do anything fun with the guys because he's a preacher's kid, Maddie, also a PK, isn't.

My mom always said that there are two kinds of PKs: those who follow the rules, act as a good example, and reflect well on their father [or mother], and those who rebel and do everything in their power to distance themselves from the ministry and the church. It was always made clear to me that my mother was the first kind of PK when she was young. The PK who helped me dye my hair black my freshman year of high school, on the other hand... That is neither here nor there, but I bring it up because Saving Maddie is all about the relationship between two PKs, Joshua and Maddie, who embody my mom's types perfectly.

Joshua Wynn has grown up being an example for other kids: The Wynn Boy. He doesn't seem to mind too much, except that he had to give up on his school's basketball team to lead the youth group and that everyone his age thinks he's some kind of prude. But even these things don't dampen his spirits, and he works very hard to keep his reputation. He has to; he's "Joshua Wynn, the preacher's son. ... a shining example of what [is] good and righteous and wholesome in the world" (28). More like some kind of super-hero than a real person, don't you think? It's not until Maddie comes back into his life that Joshua starts to object to the perceptions that other people have of him and the pressure that he is under, from his parents and the community, to do and be good. And no, he never liked that he gets left out of things because he's such a goodie-two-shoes, that he's the guy other kids hide their beer from at parties, but until Maddie comes along, it's as though he didn't know he could be any different. She opens up a world for him where he is not an extension of his father and his father's work.

Now, I've never been a PK, but I was raised by one, and I was definitely a goodie-two-shoes in high school who had more friends at youth group than at school. I think that Johnson has absolutely nailed that experience, or at least mirrored mine. The feelings and internal conflicts that Joshua goes through felt so authentic. His struggle to reconcile what he wants to do with what he's supposed to do with what everyone else is doing was ongoing. The lectures from his parents ("I'm not mad, I'm disappointed." -- the worst!) and the advice from his friends to just go for it (the BIG it, no less), were so familiar. And then there's Maddie, who seems so much more grown-up, experienced, and figured out than Joshua. Of course he falls for her! There is definitely attraction involved, but Joshua also gets one of those I-want-to-be-you crushes on her.

Saving Maddie is told from Joshua's perspective, so we don't get to see the inner workings of Maddie's head. Through her talks with Joshua, however, she becomes a fully realized and complex character. Something that makes up a large part of Maddie, and everyone else's problem with her, is that she is no longer religious. BUT she still has her faith. This disconnect between faith and religion is something that a lot of teens struggle with, not just PKs. Without going into great detail or getting bogged down in theology, Johnson makes Maddie an example of what it can mean to believe in God without participating in a specific religious tradition. She still considers herself spiritual and a Christian, but she doesn't go to church. Joshua sees her spirituality acted out in her life, rather than her Sunday attendance. It's a less obvious way of teaching-by-example than the kind of life he has been living, and while he may not change to be non-religious like Maddie, he definitely learns from her. Seeing how she acts out her faith in what she does rather than what she doesn't do gives him more choices for how he can show his. And he finally does that by sticking up for Maddie.

Because when Mom and Dad and everyone else saw Madeline, all they saw was the girl with the bad attitude and sexy body who didn't care about her faith or her family or even herself. The girl who threatened to sway me from the path of the righteous.

But when I saw Madeline, I saw a girl who prayed before every meal. A girl whose eyes shone with sadness every time her father was mentioned. A girl who desperately needed someone to tell her she was good.
While there is clearly more to Maddie than her lack of religion rather than her lack of faith, this is what stuck with me while reading. I think it will resonate with many other readers as well.

I could go on and on about Saving Maddie; there are at least half a dozen more quotes left in my notes. Johnson has done something wonderful here. He's managed to capture the PK experience, and the growing-up-at-church experience, so well! And he's managed to do it in a way that, I think, will be attractive and relevant to readers who've grown up without these experiences as well.

Book source: Philly Free Library

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