Will Halpin, the central character in Josh Berk's debut novel The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin, is a perfect example of an unreliable narrator for one simple reason: he's deaf. The reader literally hears only what Will hears - or more accurately, we only read what he lip-reads - and he misses words here and there. For instance, this is what Will lip-reads from his history teacher one day: "How did you (something something) the reading? Was there anything (something something) found interesting? Didn't any of you (something) the reading at all?" Will misses a lot. But Josh Berk does an amazing job of making Will immediately likeable anyway. He is witty, smart, self-deprecating in an endearing way, and he has just made the choice to switch from attending a deaf school to his local public school. The combination of these traits and the vulnerability of his situation makes us want to trust him. He is also brutally honest. And he shares his honesty readily by writing observations in his notebook and articulating the constant buzzing commentary that runs through his brain. He has opinions about everything - about his deaf school and its annoying politics, about his new mainstream public high school and its typical social hierarchy, about his family, his friends and mostly about himself. All of this makes it easy to root for Will - and to believe him - as he tries to assimilate into his new community and environment.
Despite himself, Will becomes good friends with the number one social outcast at the school, Devon Smiley, and when their class takes a field trip to a defunct mine - hysterically named Happy Memory Coal Mine - and the school's star quarterback mysteriously dies, Will and Devon become an unexpected detective team. Who killed the quarterback? There are plenty of suspects, and this Hardy Boys-goes-nerdy duo pledges to solve the crime. At the same time, Will is trying to solve an identity mystery of his own. Is he related to a miner who died in this same mine many years ago? And why has he never heard of him before?
Part coming-of age-story, part mystery, and part social satire, The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin is a quirky, genre-bending story. Berk is especially adept at tackling the rarely talked about social and political issues inside the deaf community. And because he weaves these into the more overt social and political issues inside a typical teenage community, we are able to see those more "normalized" issues in a new light. Through Will's astute eyes and mind, Berk blows open teenage stereotypes, high school rules of hierarchy, and the too-often silent identity struggles all teens face.
Despite his challenges, Will is clearly a keen observer. And perhaps because of them he is a creative thinker. He is also - despite his sarcastic and relentless humor - an earnest guy. In the end, he solves the mystery of who killed the quarterback, as well as his the mystery of his own identity. And so it turns out that Will is, perhaps, the most reliable - and likeable - kind of narrator of all.
Recommended for ages 12 & up.
This review was originally published in April 2010, and has been updated for the June 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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