Paperboy by Vince Vawter book has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.
Eleven-year-old Victor Vollmer lives in Memphis in 1959. He has an incredible pitching arm and a sensitive spirit, but he also has a big problem. Victor can hardly speak because of his stuttering. His speech therapist has taught him to use “gentle air,” or to make an s-s-s-s sound before trying to get a difficult word out. But it’s still easier not to speak at all than to verbally express what he wants or needs.
Victor’s friend Art is the neighborhood paperboy. He asks Victor to take his route for the month of July while he visits family. Victor knows he will have to collect money every Friday, which will mean talking to the people on the route. Nervously, he agrees to help Art. Victor’s parents and housekeeper, Mam, are proud of his willingness to stretch himself.
Each day, Victor and the other paperboys meet the newspaper truck. Victor cuts the heavy cords around the papers with his yellow-handled knife. When he realizes it’s getting dull, he decides to pay a local junk peddler named Ara T. to sharpen it for him. Ara T. puts the knife and the money in his junk cart and moves along. Weeks pass and the man fails to return the knife. Mam has often warned Victor that he shouldn’t go near Ara T. She’s known him for years and says he’s trouble.
Victor meets several memorable people on his route. He practices saying difficult words and sounds as he throws papers, but this causes trouble with Mrs. Worthington the first day. When he approaches her house, yelling the word “pitch,” she thinks he’s calling her a bad name. He writes her a kind, apologetic note, and she softens toward him. Victor thinks Mrs. Worthington is pretty, but she’s nearly always drinking when he sees her. She passes out drunk several times while chatting with him. Once, a man who isn’t her husband is with her in the house. Another time, Victor hears Mr. Worthington yelling and things shattering. He sees Mrs. Worthington with a black eye the next day. He worries about her, the same way he worries when Mam suddenly misses several days of work and returns bruised and battered. Mam won’t tell him what happened, but he suspects Ara T. may have had a hand in it.
Another neighbor, Mr. Spiro, quickly catches on to Victor’s speech problems. Rather than pretend not to notice, he patiently listens and helps the boy get his words out. A former merchant marine, Mr. Spiro has a house full of books he’s collected on his travels and insights on a wide range of topics. Victor enjoys engaging in the man’s strange and grown-up conversations, and he feels free to ask many questions. He’s even comfortable enough to share a poem he wrote. Mr. Spiro calls Victor his “young messenger,” and each week, he gives him a piece of a dollar bill with a word written on it. By month’s end, Victor has a full dollar bill bearing the words student, servant, seller and seeker. Mr. Spiro urges him to ponder these words, explaining that each is a segment of Victor’s soul.
Victor spends most of his time with Mam while his busy parents work or attend social engagements. On a trip to the zoo, Victor witnesses some of the injustices Mam faces because she’s black. He’s surprised she doesn’t fight back when she’s mistreated, but she explains there is no point in being rebellious or vengeful. Later, Victor discovers someone has taken things from his room, including his paper route money.
When he tells Mam about this and about his yellow-handled knife, Mam becomes indignant. She takes him to a juke joint where they find Ara T. with Victor’s possessions. Mam and Ara T. fight, and Ara T. reveals that he killed Mam’s brother years earlier. Victor throws a bottle at Ara T. When the man lunges at him, Mam stabs Ara T. in the arms with Victor’s knife. Others in the joint patch up the junk man and promise he won’t bother Victor again.
As July comes to a close, Victor believes that his month as a paperboy has changed him. He begins to ponder what it means to have a soul. He thinks about his talks with Mr. Spiro, who has left town for several months. He sees Mrs. Worthington walking hand in hand with her husband and hopes she’s happy. He befriends a boy on the route who he’s learned is deaf, and he’s finally able to tell his mother that the food she thinks is his favorite, isn’t.
Though he’s recently discovered that Dad isn’t his birth father, he embraces and strives to deepen their already-loving relationship. He’s even able to speak several full sentences in front of his class, finally verbalizing his own name for the first time. Victor tells Mam he’s learned that what he says is more important than how he says it and that his soul doesn’t stutter.
Mam reads the Bible and teaches Victor the 23rd Psalm. She sings church songs to herself while she works. She says drinking alcohol puts the Devil inside of people, and she blames the Devil for a number of other negative events throughout the book. Mam creates needlework pictures that depict Bible stories and characters. She tells Victor God will help him find his words the way He helped Daniel in the lions’ den. Mam won’t take Victor to church with her because she says the message is for adults. She does let him join her for the singing part in the evening. Victor says his parents take him to church sometimes, but they don’t seem to be having as good a time as the people at Mam’s church.
Victor once asked Mam why he stuttered, and she told him it was just God’s plan. Victor thinks a god who would play dirty tricks like that on a kid doesn’t know much about being a god. When he witnesses prejudice against blacks, he thinks God and grown-ups aren’t doing a very good job working things out in the world. When Victor accuses Mam of putting everything on God, she says she will continue to do so all her days. After watching Mam remain respectful in the face of prejudice, Victor promises himself he’s going to listen at his parents’ church and try to understand God’s ways. He explains that he has been disillusioned: When he first learned about prayer, he always asked God to help him talk right. His speech never changed, so he gave up on God.
Mam tells Victor she knows the Lord will protect her soul from people like Ara T., no matter who may have a physical grip on her. Victor starts pondering the soul. He says he once asked his mother what the soul was, and she said she’d tell him when he was older. When he asks Mam, she says it’s the part of you no one can see, but it’s the best part because God has control of it. Victor realizes he wants to think about this and ask more questions later. In the end, he tells Mam his soul doesn’t stutter.
Mr. Spiro has several books by a German philosopher named Martin Heidegger. He tells Victor that Heidegger helps us understand existentialism, which means that a person exists as a being because that person alone gives meaning to his or her own life. Spiro does point out that Heidegger fell in with the Nazis, so intelligence doesn’t always equate to morality. Mam tells Victor she consulted with a fortune-teller in the town where she grew up, even though some people called it blasphemy to listen to him. When Mam has a strong feeling something’s wrong, she says there are haints (or ghosts) nearby.
Victor’s dad plays ball and talks with him, even after long workdays. Dad’s kind, attentive behavior allows him to retain Victor’s love and admiration, even when the boy discovers Dad isn’t his birth father. Both Mom and Dad are gone frequently for work or socializing, leaving Victor with Mam. Mam cares deeply and fiercely for Victor, and the two share a special bond. Mam tells Victor about God and demonstrates dignity in the face of racism. Mr. Spiro speaks to Victor as he would an adult, taking time to share his wisdom and help the boy deal with his stuttering.
The words b–ch, a– and h— appear a few times each. Readers witness some fighting, stabbing and bloodshed in a scene where Mam stands up to Ara T.
Victor sees a man at Mrs. Worthington’s house who isn’t her husband. The man sheepishly tells Victor that he’s Mrs. Worthington’s cousin. Sometimes Victor thinks about the time he saw Mrs. Worthington in her housecoat with flaps that didn’t stay closed.
Alcohol: Mrs. Worthington is almost always drinking whiskey or some sort of alcohol when Victor sees her. Sometimes she passes out in his presence, and he cleans up her broken or empty glasses. His parents and their friends drink when he’s out with them at a restaurant.
Abuse: Victor overhears Mr. and Mrs. Worthington fighting and hears furniture being smashed. Later he sees Mrs. Worthington with a black eye. Mam comes to work with bruises indicative of a beating.
Smoking/Tobacco: Victor’s parents smoke. His mother says she is going to quit and makes him promise never to start. Then he sees her smoking in her car. Mam chews tobacco on the way to the juke joint.
Lying: Victor tells white lies to Mam a few times. He says he isn’t good at lying because he can’t explain himself well, and Mam usually catches him anyway.
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