Okay for Now, by Gary D. Schmidt, uses an obvious conceit—the Audubon birds Doug Swieteck, the protagonist, learns to draw reflect him, others in his life, and/or his surroundings. The obviousness of the metaphor, though, doesn’t detract from the story, rather it’s weaved into it rather brilliantly.
One way to describe the novel is as a tale of child abuse. Doug--and his brothers and mother—are physically and emotionally abused by Doug’s short-tempered, often-drunk father in ways most of us would find untenable. We never see the violence, but we know it’s happening and only once are we told outright of the consequences (when Doug was younger, his father forced the young boy to get a tattoo). This might make it easier for us (and kids – the intended audience) to read. Schmidt also sets the book in the 1960s, which may make the abuse more understandable. After all, we don’t want to think that parents still beat their kids.
The novel is also a story about finding where you belong. During the course of the book, Doug finds a home in Marysville, New York, a town that comes to care about him. It doesn’t happen all at once. Doug has to learn to stand up for himself and at the same time allow himself to be cared for. Doug is a great hero. He is likable, but not perfect. Even he knows, as he says, when he’s acting like a chump. At the same time, Doug has a goal: to get all the original Audubon drawings (which are valuable and are being sold one by one whenever the town needs money) back into the book at the library, where they belong.
Doug is enraptured by the birds and uses them to describe people. Sometimes, though, Schmidt uses the birds to reflect what is happening. In one chapter, Doug likens himself to a snowy heron, bravely waiting for a hunter. Like the bird, Doug is going to face down someone who hasn’t been fair to him. In another chapter, Doug describes two fork-tailed petrels on a collision course and sees that he and his brother Lucas, newly returned from duty in Vietnam and missing his legs, need to collide too. Doug is clever and Schmidt is too. The conceit may be obvious, but at least it’s obvious to Doug too.
In some small way, the ending of the book is a trifle troublesome. Doug’s dad seemingly turns less abusive and even does a few good things. Could he really have turned good so quickly? But Schmidt smartly leaves the story open-ended, as the title says: Doug and his family and his friends are OK for now.
I highly recommend this book.