To kill the beloved protagonist of a previous book in the opening pages of a companion novel and make that death the new book’s premise would be the act of a truly brave, bold children’s author. Yet that’s exactly what Gary D. Schmidt does in Just Like That, but trust me, Schmidt knows exactly what he’s doing.
Set in 1968, Just Like That is part of an outstanding series that began with Newbery Honor recipient The Wednesday Wars and continued in Okay for Now, a finalist for the National Book Award. In structure, the books are reminiscent of Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale trilogy. While each book can be read separately, overlapping characters and themes enrich each other in understated and often profound ways.
The series' well-deserved legions of fans will experience the gut punch of grief that engulfs Meryl Lee Kowalski, who loses her best friend and feels as though “everything in the world, absolutely everything in the world, has become a Blank.” Unable to face life at home in Hicksville, New York, she heads to the coast of Maine to begin eighth grade at a private boarding school, the prestigious St. Elene’s Preparatory Academy. In the meantime, a boy named Matt Coffin is alone and on the run from a violent past, reeling from the murder of his best friend. He slowly builds a friendship and then a budding romance with Meryl Lee, as both young teens wrestle with grief and try to find their place in the world.
Schmidt is a master at slowly creating wonderful relationships, often turning foes into friends in unexpected but believable ways. Meryl Lee initially feels lost among St. Elene’s grand, staid grounds and ultra-rich, snobby girls, but a group of students gradually allow their own strengths and friendships to emerge and blossom. St. Elene’s is run by a kind, wise leader, Dr. Nora MacKnockater, who takes both Meryl Lee and Matt under her wing.
Throughout all three books of these books, Schmidt reveals his genius for turning literary references into organic parts of his plots. In this case, Meryl Lee reads The Wizard of Oz as she and Matt try to find their way “home,” which isn’t easy since her parents are divorcing. Matt will remind readers of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist as he is pursued by a dangerous Fagin-like character named Leonidas Shug, an ongoing tension that builds to a dramatic conclusion. Schmidt incorporates current events into all three books, particularly the horrors of the Vietnam War, and Just Like That also features a hilarious and plot-pivotal appearance by none other than Spiro Agnew.
Just Like That takes place in Harpswell, Maine, where the writer Elizabeth Strout spent part of her childhood. Like Strout, Schmidt creates small worlds that contain the full piercing range of human nature and emotions, and he captures comedy and tragedy equally well. He writes gently but realistically about subjects including domestic violence, illness, death and grief, but his pages are also always filled with hope.
As Dr. MacKnockater tells Meryl Lee, “The world can be such an ugly place. It takes a special person, a truly accomplished person, to make it a beautiful place.” Just Like That is a riveting, award-worthy novel from a truly accomplished writer. Don’t miss it.