An Ocean in Iowa by Peter Hedges
Finished on 10/14/13
Rating: 3/5 (So-so)
Peter Hedges’s first novel, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, established him as a writer of extraordinary talent and sensitivity. Critics praised Hedges’s quirky yet unmistakably real characters, his radiant prose, his wry humor, and his ability to illuminate the unexpected within the ordinary. The acclaimed film adaptation, with a screenplay by Hedges, became an instant classic.
In his second novel, Hedges again turns to the heartland for his setting—but this time to suburban Iowa, 1969.
Scotty Ocean is turning seven years old, and he has announced earlier in his life that seven is going to be his year. It does turn out to be his year, but not the year he imagined. It is the first year his mother leaves the family. At first, Scotty does astonishing things to get her to return. When he comes to believe she won’t be moving back, he tries to replace her. Ultimately, he decides he must take drastic action to remain forever seven.
Hedges brings to vivid life the unforgettable Ocean family: Scotty and his two older sisters; their father, at once stern and loyal; and their mother, Joan, a character of heartbreaking complexity. Alternately funny and moving, this is a gentle novel of remarkable power and resonance.
An Ocean in Iowa is rich with glorious details of life in the late sixties: “Bonanza” lunch boxes, Twister, “Family Affair,” Art-o-Matic spin art, and the Norelco Santa. But it is also a timeless book about the delicate balance of families. Beautifully crafted and constantly surprising, it explores the fragile contracts between parents and children, and what it really means to grow up.
In an effort to read more of the books that have been lurking on my shelves for years, I chose An Ocean in Iowa, which I picked up at a Fort Worth Library sale, so I’ve owned it for at least a decade. Not only did I wait too long to read it, but I waited too long to write my review. It’s been almost three months since I finished the book and I don’t remember much more than enjoying the sixties’ nostalgia and feeling a sense of sadness for Scotty and his sisters. I only marked two passages, but they both depict the terrible heartbreak this little boy felt:
It would be a week before school resumed.
By the third day after Christmas, all interest in the new toys had been exhausted. Television took up most of Scotty’s time. He watched his favorite shows—Bonanza, My Three Sons, Family Affair. The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.
New and Improved Tide laundry detergent was being advertised. New and Improved toilet paper. New and Improved soap.
Scotty stared blankly at the TV. He never told his dad or sisters or even Tom Conway the whereabouts of his heart. He knew it was gone.
But he had his brain and that was what really mattered. With his brain he would outsmart his heart.
On television, many of the mothers on Scotty’s favorite shows were dead.
On My Three Sons, Chip and Ernie had no mother. They had Uncle Charlie, of course, who did many of the motherly chores. And even though Fred MacMurray was dating Ernie’s teacher (they would marry that March), she would never be a real mother.
On The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Eddie had no mother. He had Mrs. Livingston, a Korean maid, and his father, a funny and kind and kite-flying father.
On Family Affair, Buffy and Jody had Uncle Bill and Mr. French—no mother, though.
Bonanza was the most motherless of shows. In fact, all three of Ben Cartwright’s boys had different mothers, all dead. But they had Hop Sing, their trusted Chinese cook.
TV provided the necessary evidence. Not only was it possible to survive without a mother; it seemed to improve your chances of having your own TV show.
This is one depressing book! *I noted my rating of 4/5 right after I finished, but now that some time has passed and I can’t recall much about the plot, I’ve decided to lower it to 3/5. It was ok, but obviously forgettable and not one I’d recommend.