Deb Aronson | New old friends bring surprises

Deb Aronson | New old friends bring surprises

By DEB ARONSON

Although I don't remember who recommended I read "Saving the Planet & Stuff" (Putnam, 2003) by Gail Gauthier, I am very glad I did. It's not often these days that you read a middle-grade novel where there are intergenerational friendships. Gauthier does a great job both poking fun at and showing the marvels of friendships like this.

Michael P. Racine the Third (MP3 to his friends) is a typical teen character in that he is perpetually embarrassed by himself and his family members, he wants some kind of summer job that sounds cool to his buddies and he wouldn't turn down a date with the town's head lifeguard.

Michael needs to find a summer job, since his original one fell through. While trying to fill up his days, Michael drops by his grandparents' retirement home to use their pool and is introduced to their old friends — Walt and Nora. That couple run an eco-magazine in Vermont called The Earth's Wife. The next thing Michael knows he is headed with them to Vermont to live in their solar house and intern at the magazine.

This is a setup for disaster, and Michael instantly regrets his decision to join these weird and wacky oldsters who refuse to pay for TV, so they get only a few network channels; are vegetarian; never drive more than 50 mph, for maximum gas mileage; and hate contributing to the landfill, so Michael's room is full of old pantyhose, denims jeans and Styrofoam packing peanuts.

Meanwhile, at the magazine, Michael worries about appearing too dressed up or not dressed up enough; shaking the managing editor's hand while sitting down, then looking dorky by standing up mid-handshake; accidently brushing against a female co-worker as he passes by her in a doorway, then spending an abnormal amount of time locked in the only bathroom trying to figure out how to handle that interaction.

Michael definitely grows in the course of the story. He begins the summer freaked out by these hilariously out-of-touch geriatrics (Walt doesn't know who Oprah Winfrey is, for example) and their goofy ideas for saving the planet, and he ends up caring about them, their magazine and even about turning out the lights.

In fact, one of the fun things about "Saving the Planet" is how Michael thinks Walt and Nora are hopelessly uncool and how Walt and Nora think Michael doesn't pay attention or know anything.

By the end of the novel, they all realize they've been wrong about each other.

In one scene where Nora has a crisis of confidence and is afraid she looks like an old fool, Michael says: "So you're going to give up because you're worried about what people think about you? What was important to you, anyway? What you believed in, or what other people thought about you?"

This outburst is especially striking since Michael could just as easily be describing himself.

Deb Aronson is an Urbana-based author whose nonfiction book about famed racehorse Rachel Alexandra has been called 'a girl-power story on four legs.'

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