Book Review: Watch the Sky, Kirsten Hubbard (2015)

April 13th, 2015 12:56 pm by Kelly Garbato

“We’re both made of stars, Jory Birch. Everybody is.”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

Signs were everywhere.

Everywhere and anywhere, Caleb said. That was the problem. They came at any time. And they could be almost anything.

Red leaves in the springtime. Pages torn from a library book. All the fish in an aquarium facing the same way. A cracked egg with twin yolks.

“How do you know?” Jory had asked his stepdad once. “I mean, how do you know you’re seeing a sign? Instead of a bunch of coincidental fish?”

“You’ll just know,” Caleb had replied.

Caleb was fickle with explanations. Sometimes he shared them. Sometimes he didn’t. But he had no problem giving orders – mostly camouflaged as suggestions.

Eleven-year-old Jory Birch has been looking for signs for the better part of five years – ever since his stepfather, Caleb, swooped in and “saved” him and his mother. From what, Jory’s not exactly sure.

A veteran who served “in a desert war Jory didn’t know much about,” Caleb is convinced that something’s coming. Something big. That’s why he moved his family – mom; Jory; and Jory’s younger siblings, Kit and Ansel – to the farm at the edge of town. Why mom spends most of her day picking and preserving cucumbers and squash from the garden; why Caleb is growing a stockpile in the locked barn; why the kids are discouraged from socializing with outsiders or confiding in anyone outside of the family. Jory’s life is a maze of secrets – secrets which become increasingly harder to keep once Jory starts fifth grade and finds himself (gasp!) making friends: with the affable Erik Dixon and outgoing Alice Brooks-Diaz.

Everything comes to a head when Caleb, convinced that the time has come, orders his family to begin nighttime construction on a bunker in the barren canyon behind their farm. Physically and mentally exhausted, Jory’s nosedive in school doesn’t go unnoticed; and before long, The dreaded Officials are knocking at the Birch’s door. It’s a sign if ever there was one, but of what?

How best to describe Watch the Sky? It kind of reminds me of a younger, middle grade version of Mary Miller’s The Last Days of California – but instead of traveling cross-country to welcome the apocalypse, Jory and his family are tunneling underground, into “the extraordinary darkness of a place the sun will never reach.”

While the writing is quite lovely in some places, the overall story didn’t do it for me. Maybe it’s because some of the harsher, more sinister edges were softened for younger readers, but the story lacked that little extra oomph!. The ending in particular felt unrealistic; a man like Caleb, when challenged or betrayed, is more likely to resort to violence than turn tail and run. (And we already saw him hit Kit, so we know he has a propensity for domestic violence.) When considered in relation to Caleb’s war stories, the ending has a certain sense of poetic beauty, but it still felt a little off. Ultimately the denouement lacked tension and left me unsatisfied.

Much of the interplay that drives the story is between Jory and Caleb, but I found mom and Kit to be infinitely more interesting. Kit, especially, who at six years old suddenly appears in the Birch’s pumpkin patch and whispers but one word (her name) in her first three years with the family.

That said, Watch the Sky is wonderfully diverse. Disability issues take center stage, of course; Caleb is suffering from PTSD as well as paranoia; meanwhile, mom gets crippling migraines and clearly struggles with an anxiety disorder of some type (generalized anxiety? agoraphobia?). Because of this, it’s difficult to view any of the adults as true villains (even as you love to hate the narcissistic, domineering Caleb), which makes for a more complex and nuanced story.

There’s also a fair amount of racial diversity. Kit has brown eyes and “olive skin…several shades darker than [Jory’s]” – and I can’t help but wonder if racism underlies at least some of Caleb’s animosity towards the girl. There’s also Alice Brooks-Diaz; she has “dark eyes, dark skin, and curly hair, which she sport[s] in twin buns.” While her father is Mexican – the Diaz half of the equation – Mrs. Brooks is described as darker than her daughter, which suggests that she’s a WOC as well. And let’s not forget the Mendoza twins and Sam Kapur, whose surnames suggest Latino and Indian heritage.

Ultimately I think that Watch the Sky is one of those middle grade books that will appeal specifically to that demographic; in particular, Jory’s journey to think critically and for himself can serve as a positive example to younger readers.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes! Disability issues take center stage, of course; Caleb is suffering from PTSD as well as paranoia; meanwhile, mom gets crippling migraines and clearly struggles with an anxiety disorder of some type (generalized anxiety? agoraphobia?).

There’s also a fair amount of racial diversity. Kit has brown eyes and “olive skin…several shades darker than [Jory’s]” – and I can’t help but wonder if racism underlies at least some of Caleb’s animosity towards the girl. There’s also Alice Brooks-Diaz; she has “dark eyes, dark skin, and curly hair, which she sport[s] in twin buns.” While her father is Mexican – the Diaz half of the equation – Mrs. Brooks is described as darker than her daughter, which suggests that she’s a WOC as well. And let’s not forget the Mendoza twins and Sam Kapur, whose surnames suggest Latino and Indian heritage.

 

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