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First Boy by Gary Schmidt

First Boy

by Gary Schmidt

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Richie's Picks: FIRST BOY by Gary Schmidt, Holt, October 2005, ISBN: 0-8050-7859-2

"But it's hard to stay angry while leaning against the flank of a cow. Cooper liked milking. He liked the work of the hoses and the swish of the thick blue-white milk coming through them. Most especially, he liked tending Moon and Star, who didn't care to be milked by machine, thank you."

I'm old enough to remember flying kites over expansive cow pastures on Manetto Hill Road, in Plainview, Long Island. But that, and the glass bottles of milk that were delivered to the front stoop by the milk man, were pretty much as close to cows as I came while growing up in the suburbs.

I remember listening to my sister Elaine once, after she'd read and re-read MISTY OF CHINCOTEAGUE. She must have been ten at the time, hanging out on a Saturday afternoon in Peggy Dean's backyard, solemnly listing for Peggy all the animals she was going to have on the farm she'd acquire when she was grown up. I recall quite vividly overhearing that conversation, as the idea of living on a farm seemed so exotic to me at the time.

It's fascinating to recall that afternoon now, having spent the latter half of my life (so far), living with a herd of dairy goats, fenced pastures, and the relatively open and rolling expanses that are so different from the confines of the fifty-by-hundred lot in Plainview and the fenced quarter-acre in Commack on which I grew up.

"Through Geometry he thought about filling the grain bins from the sacks he had carried in that morning. And after he got home from freshman cross, there would be the Orchard to mow. And there was still some splitting for this winter's woodpile--he was behind on that--and more hay to haul to the barn loft. And that top porch step to fix.
"He thought about the chores through every class and wondered how much he was missing what his grandfather used to do without saying anything about it. It worried him through World Cultures, where he found it hard to care much about Ancient Egyptian Trade Routes. And it worried him through English, where he couldn't muster up much concern for whether Beatrice served God, loved Benedick, and mended or not. But the ending of the play, when the prince was left all alone--that had something to it. He knew what that was about."

Fifteen year-old Cooper Jewett is feeling very alone after his grandfather dies. It has just been the two of them living on the New Lincoln, New Hampshire dairy farm for those years after his grandmother had passed away; so different from his buddy Peter Hurd, whose family was so large "they could almost field both sides of a baseball game." He loves the farm with all his heart, and is determined to stay on it, but after the first few days alone he seems about ready to drown in a bottomless pit of daily work, despite the assistance of the neighbors: Mrs. Perley, from up the hill, and a fellow farmer, Mr. Searle.

"As for homework: If Mrs. Perley hadn't brought his backpack in from the front porch, he would have forgotten he'd left it there. Not that it would have made much difference. He went up to his room with it but never opened it that night. Geometry theorems went unproved, Ancient Egyptian Trade Routes went unmapped, and Benedick's blank verse went unscanned.
"Cooper slept without moving all night long.
"And when he woke up in the morning, there wasn't even a moment when he didn't remember that he had to do it ALL OVER AGAIN."

Gary Schmidt captures both the natural beauty and down-to-earth reality of life on the farm in a way that I've never before had the pleasure of reading. I just love watching Cooper take one last walk through the barn before bedtime, making sure to gently pat each and every cow nose goodnight.

But that is only the beginning of what Schmidt sows in FIRST BOY, a satire in which he deftly intersperses community secrets and national political intrigue with (real) traditional values and gentle, folksy humor (a la Garrison Keillor) that pokes fun at the various religious denominations and makes frequent references to well-baked pies.

Especially notable amidst the craziness is the hero who emerges, Mrs. Perley, the retired teacher:

" 'They'll be arranging for someone to pick you up. It's for your own good.'
" 'Cooper is fine where he is,' said Mrs. Perley. "Now the sheriff came around his desk. His hands were clenching and unclenching like a gunfighter in an old Western.
" 'Neither of you has any idea what you're mixed up in,' he said, and it was as if his voice had become as cold as Fright. 'Not a single idea.' He looked hard at Cooper. 'Life isn't always what you expect it to be. Sometimes it can be full of surprises.'
" 'I've seen surprises,' said Cooper. 'I'll make due.'
"Mrs. Perley put an arm around him.
" 'We'll see how long that lasts.' Sheriff Gibbs turned back to Mrs. Perley. 'And maybe you'd better stay up in your own house. This isn't New Lincoln Elementary anymore.'
" 'Do not begin a sentence with a conjunction, Raymond. It is grammatically improper,' said Mrs. Perley.
"Sheriff Gibbs went back around his desk. 'Thank you for the visit,' he said. 'I'll be sure to type up a report and get right on the case--Raging Birth Certificate Thief on the Loose.' He sat down and put his feet up on the desk again. He rubbed his chin and clasped his hands on his belly, over which there was a lot to clasp. 'New Lincoln police, always at your service,' he said.
"Outside the sheriff's office, Mrs. Perley stood by her Plymouth with her key in her hand. 'He certainly is a most unpleasant man--as helpful as a thunderstorm during a Sunday School picnic. What does he mean by accusing you of making up the entire story?' She spoke more and more quickly and waved the key at Cooper. 'What did he mean by that? And how did he know about the black sedan? Drat!' She punched her hand into the air. 'See how upset he has made me? I've begun a sentence with a conjunction myself. And he's made me say drat. Oh, and there I go again with another conjunction.'
" 'I won't ever tell,' said Cooper.
" 'Thank you. And drat that man anyway.' "

Having spent a quarter century milking Nubian dairy goats myself, what impressed me above all about FIRST BOY is that while there is so much going on in this zany tale, Cooper Jewett never once fails to register that it is milking time.

Richie Partington
BudNotBuddy@aol.com ( )
  richiespicks | May 22, 2009 |
Cooper's grandfather dies leaving him alone in the world. Cooper is determined to keep his families dairy farm going even if he has to do so by himself. Mysterious black cars are seen about town and then damage begins to happen around Cooper's farm. Cooper finds himself involved in a political struggle as he discovers who his parents really are and the meaning of family.
6-8 grades
no language problems ( )
  cpotter | Apr 10, 2009 |
The book did a good job of building up the suspense that began after a teenager loses his grandfather and is threatened with losing his farm. ( )
  siggyreads | Dec 20, 2007 |
Dragged into the political turmoil of a presidential election year, fourteen-year-old Cooper Jewett, who runs a New Hampshire dairy farm since his grandfather's death, stands up for himself and makes it clear whose first boy he really is.
  prkcs | Feb 20, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805078592, Paperback)

A fast-paced political thriller

“You’re my first boy, Cooper, my first boy,” grandfather says just before he dies. All alone in the world, without even a dog, the only thing that keeps Cooper going is running the dairy farm.

Suddenly, black sedans are swarming all around Cooper’s small New Hampshire town, driven by mysterious men in dark suits. Cooper’s barn is burned to the ground, and his house is broken into and searched during the night. The President of the United States calls on Cooper for a visit, and her opponent wants Cooper to join him on the campaign trail.

This fast-paced political thriller will have the reader turning the pages in anticipation of the next clue.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:31 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

Dragged into the political turmoil of a presidential election year, fourteen-year-old Cooper Jewett, who runs a New Hampshire dairy farm since his grandfather's death, stands up for himself and makes it clear whose first boy he really is.

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