Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt (Andersen Press, January 2016) follows a similar vein to Emma Donoghue’s Room in choosing a child as its narrator; in this case, Jack is a twelve year-old who suddenly gains a brother when his parents foster Joseph, a troubled boy two years his senior. Jack’s innocent narration is a more compassionate execution of Hemingway’s iceberg theory; at such a young age, he is only able to hint at much of what is happening, given his limited understanding. There is much of this iceberg beneath the water’s surface: Joseph has allegedly tried to murder a teacher, been imprisoned and, most significantly, has a daughter he has never seen: the Jupiter of the title.
He really could have been any other eighth-grade kid at Eastham Middle School. Except he had a daughter. And he wouldn’t look at you when he talked – if he talked.
If all of this sounds melodramatic, Orbiting Jupiter defies this expectation; despite the serious subject matter, Schmidt employs a lightness of touch through the voice of Jack, whose instinct to trust and love Joseph, in spite of the warnings issued, is deeply endearing. Don’t get me wrong; Jack is not a cutesy kid and Joseph is not some kind of romantic, misunderstood hero. Despite the dramatic subject matter, Schmidt’s characters are never less than believable – sometimes heartbreakingly so, for example when Joseph’s father appears and much of Joseph’s behaviour makes sudden and devastating sense. Joseph’s backstory is genuinely tragic and would most likely lead a curious younger reader to ask questions of the nearest grown-up; most of the references to incarcerated life will be familiar to adults with Netflix, but would probably shock some young teenagers.
Aside from the subtly emotion-inducing storyline, there were a few other touches in Orbiting Jupiter which I particularly enjoyed. Joseph’s experiences at school are marked by teachers, some of whom fear and loathe him; others, however, show the qualities which the best teachers possess, seeing Joseph’s potential and sensitively encouraging him to fulfil it. As a teacher myself, I recognised more of the reality of my profession in Orbiting Jupiter than I do in most YA fiction.
Schmidt’s prose is often beautiful, despite or, perhaps, because of its simplicity. Jack has a palpable innocence which only serves to emphasise the comparatively idyllic childhood he has enjoyed, and of which Joseph has been deprived. This extends beyond the development of the plot, to the depiction of Maine in winter (I hate snow but the descriptions here almost made me rethink my lifelong aversion). I compared Orbiting Jupiter to Room in its narrative earlier, but Schmidt’s Jack is older and less annoying than Donoghue’s, providing an innocent but not saccharine perspective on events.
Around and around, and I wondered if he was skating in the silver moonlight with Maddie. Around and around, and I didn’t want him to stop, no matter how cold it got, or late. Around and around, and the sharp stars watched. And the low moon. And Jupiter over the mountains.
Orbiting Jupiter could have been a heavy-handed chore of a read, but instead is something of a YA/middle-grade masterpiece. There is enough here to retain the attention of a 15 year old, while at the same time the plot and characters would engage a younger reader ready for more challenging subject matter. I can personally testify that it makes 32 year olds cry; with a last act twist that pulls your heart out of your body before shoving it roughly back in, I dare anyone not to be claiming to have something in their eye at the end of this book.