Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
-Wendell Berry from Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
The Second Life of Abigail Walker begins with this epitaph, an excerpt from one of Wendell Berry's poems (see "Beyond the Book"), and the first character we encounter in the story is, in fact, a fox. She is not an ordinary one, though. She is magical, has been in many places over many times, and is one who has witnessed many stories unfold. This time she makes an appearance in Abby Walker's story.
Abby, who is in sixth grade, wants to be just average and blend in. She is desperately trying to fit in with the "medium" girls. Medium smart, medium tall, medium ability at sports. But when she doesn't agree with a nasty comment the ringleader of the "mediums" makes, she is cast out once and for all.
This is a typical example of bullying and complicated middle school dynamics, but O'Roark Dowell creates a story that is anything but typical. There's that magical fox, for one thing, who trots in and out of Abigail's narrative.
The fox recounts stories set in her own past and draws parallels between them and Abby's present-day circumstance. This sheds more light on Abby and her predicament than would otherwise be possible. Having the fox corroborate her views makes Abby a very reliable narrator - one with whom the reader can empathize.
O'Roark Dowell uses the fox as a red furry thread, weaving together universal stories (of President Lincoln, the Westward Expansion and other historical moments in time) and Abby's own story. This fox drives home the message outlined in the epitaph; it reminds Abby that the way to finding her true self is by trying again and again, by trekking down one path and then another, by slowly making new friends.
The book has a whole host of other characters who are struggling with their own complicated dynamics and feelings of isolation. Abby's mother can't tolerate unhappiness. Her father is unable to see past surface characteristics. And, most important, Abby has a new friend Anders, whose father is working hard to overcome his fears of practically everything. By making the choice to keep the adults in the story present (and having their troubles aired as well), the author places Abigail's problems in a larger context where the people around her are all battling issues of their own.
Finally, because O'Roark Dowell establishes a wide landscape for Abby's journey - from her middle school nemeses, to her connection with the magical fox, to her new friend Anders and his family - the story becomes a rich, messy mix of relationships and their dynamics.
The result is a multi-layered examination of friendship, self-esteem, and the pathways to a happy, hopeful life. As Wendell Berry states: Practice resurrection. Walk an extra mile. Walk in a different direction. Walk too much, too far, for too long. Because somewhere inside those journeys is the exact place where you might finally find your true self. Abby does just that. She practices resurrection and gets a "second life."
I highly recommend The Second Life of Abigail Walker to middle graders and adults alike.
This review was originally published in September 2012, and has been updated for the August 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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