“It’s a tough world, Beal.” That’s the advice that seventh grader Hercules Beal receives from his new homeroom teacher, retired U.S. Marine Lieutenant Colonel Hupfer. The world’s been especially tough on Hercules, whose parents were killed when a pickup truck slammed into their vehicle. Understandably, he’s not happy about much, including the fact that he has to go to a new school, Cape Cod Academy for Environmental Sciences. Newbery Honor winner Gary D. Schmidt knows how to write about devastating situations, and just as The Wednesday Wars did, The Labors of Hercules Beal (Clarion, $19.99, 9780358659631) digs deep.
Narrator Hercules is hardly one to wallow in his sorrows. Despite the tragedy he’s faced, he hasn’t lost his sense of humor nor his sense of wonder, always heading out first thing in the morning with his cat and dog to watch the sunrise over the Truro Dunes, which is his time to say good morning to his parents. After their death, his adult brother, Achilles, returned home to take care of him and run the family business, Beal Brothers Farm and Nursery.
Schmidt has created numerous caring adult teachers in his novels—a fact no doubt influenced by the fact that Schmidt is himself a college English professor. The Labors of Hercules Beal is no exception. At the beginning of the school year, Lt. Col. Hupfer assigns each of his seventh graders their own “Classical Mythology Application Project” to “learn something about yourselves through studying classical myths.” Hercules’ assignment is to consider how each of his namesake demigod’s 12 fabled labors might be performed today.
This daunting assignment provides an intriguing theme, as well as a great way to connect young readers to mythology. Schmidt makes great use of the Maine setting, and the Beal Brothers Farm and Nursery is rife with intriguing dilemmas. Hercules’ reflection essays and Hupfer’s responses are entertaining and informative as well; Hupfer is a kind, sensitive but tough grader, making comments such as, “Your grade might have been significantly higher had you not chosen to use tricks that have been obvious to any teacher born since 1702.”
Few writers have the ability to sink a middle grade character so deeply into the abyss and then bring them back again. As Hercules Beal concludes, “By the end of his Labors, Hercules understood that he had been to hell, and come back. That meant a lot—that he had come back. Now he had a lot more living to do—and he was grateful beyond anything for that.” The Labors of Hercules Beal is an exceptionally honest and empowering book, offering multitudes of hope, kindness and unforgettable adventures.