Gary D. Schmidt’s new novel, Orbiting Jupiter, is a moving story about love, family and loyalty. Readers likely will cry here and there; they’ll also laugh from time to time and revel in the book’s pulses of beauty—whether it’s flashes of a striking winter landscape, touching moments of kinship or grace felt after wrenching grief.
The central characters are two boys, brought together when 12-year-old Jack’s parents agree to foster 14-year-old Joseph, who was recently released from a juvenile facility.
Schmidt is a two-time Newbery Honor winner, an English professor, author of 30-plus books and a father of six. When he began writing Orbiting Jupiter, he could hear Jack’s narration quite clearly. “Every book is different,” Schmidt says during a call from his Michigan home, a farm where he lives with his family. “The big thing is, I have to have the voice of the narrator and have to hear how the book is going to sound. Sometimes it takes so dang long! But with this book, it just came.”
As Schmidt explains, Orbiting Jupiter is “a 12-year-old kiddo telling a very adult story about finding love, having a child and losing both of them—but being desperate to get one of them back.”
Joseph became a father at 13, after he and a girl named Madeleine fell in love. Joseph’s abusive father was the plumber for her wealthy lawyer-parents, but despite their disparate backgrounds, they found solace in one another. From this love came a baby named Jupiter, plus a series of events that culminated in Joseph joining Jack’s family on their small Maine farm.
Jack is curious and a little wary, but when Rosie the cow lets Joseph milk her on the first try, Jack figures they’ll be fine: “You can tell all you need to know about someone from the way cows are around him.”
Schmidt says, “[Jack]’s a young, naive 12-year-old. Farms are wonderful, but they can be insular. And Joseph’s a kid a couple of years older who’s lived so much more, who’s very worldly-wise because of what he’s gone through.”
The boys become friends bit by bit, smile by smile, as the weather grows ever colder. Jerk students and a judgmental vice principal -aren’t welcoming, but a few teachers bond with Joseph, including Coach Swieteck, whom fans may recognize from Schmidt’s 2011 National Book Award finalist, Okay for Now.
It’s a hopeful thing, this warmth amid the gloom of Joseph’s life. The bleakness is a bit of a departure for Schmidt, as is the book’s trim length. “I wanted it to be stark, to be close to Ethan Frome or Bleak House. It’s pretty narrow, pretty focused, like a New England winter.”
In fact, he says, “It’s the most New England of all of my books.” (Maine serves as the backdrop for both the 2005 Newbery Honor book Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and 2010’s Trouble.) “Saying so much with so little, things that can be inferred—shared culture allows you to do that. It’s also harder for outsiders, because that laconic starkness can seem unfriendly.”
The world of Orbiting Jupiter can seem unkind at times, if not downright cruel. Not all parents are kind, attentive or loving, and kids are too often unfairly judged by those around them.
“I talked to a pediatrician who told me, ‘You can’t believe how many kids come in who have kids,’ ” Schmidt says. “Also, years ago, I read about a kid in Arkansas who at age 13 had two children. It obviously stayed with me.”
That processing of an idea over time embodies Schmidt’s considered approach to his writing. He composes his work on a 1953 gray steel Royal typewriter that lives in a small building on his property. There’s also a wood stove that keeps the author warm as he works—and allows him to start anew as many times as he likes.
“I write 500 words a day,” Schmidt says, and he revises any previous work as he goes. The process might seem painstaking, but that’s what he likes about it. “I use scrap paper, the backs of old galleys . . . and as I write, I burn the previous copy in the wood stove. It’s so cathartic to see it going up in flames. By the end, I’ve retyped [the book I’m working on] six, eight, 10 times.”
One result of that process is the careful layering of significant elements. For example, Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing are mentioned in Orbiting Jupiter—but not in a way that requires readers to have read or heard of either book.
However, for Schmidt, “Everything has to be connected.” Thoreau’s book is “a tremendous bonding story about two brothers who loved each other a great deal. It’s not necessarily something the reader will get, but for me it makes a lot of difference. . . . That detail reverberates through the story.” And in Octavian Nothing, “A kid is imprisoned and defined by others. . . . When Joseph reads it, he connects with it.”
As a writer, Schmidt says, “[I have] a lot of stuff going on that never appears in the book, but the book is different for my having thought of it. It’s an emotional kind of connection that starts early.”
Thanks to the deftly drawn characters that inhabit Orbiting Jupiter, that emotional connection continues until the very end, when signs of new beginnings appear like the approaching spring.
“You’d have to be an idiot to deny the pain so often around us,” Schmidt says, “but I also want to say it’s a beautiful and glorious world. Joseph does find love, Maddie as well. . . . It’s not tragic that a broken world is one that’s also good and glorious. It’s worthy of our lives to try and make it better.”