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Heroics of Family Life : BOAT SONG by Frances Ward Weller (Macmillan: $12.95; 180 pp.)

November 08, 1987|Barbara Bottner | Bottner's most recent young adult novel, "Nothing in Common" (Harper & Row) has been optioned for film

Heroes are in short supply for us all, though villains flood our national news and terrorize our private lives with relentless regularity. The real heroes of childhood are the people who take the time to listen to us, treat us with dignity, but also have scope and courage that awakens our possibilities and make us more thrilled at life, more willing to take chances.

When we meet Jonno Ayres, age 11, he is going off to Cape Cod for the summer to be with his Gram. His family has the makings of "Father Knows Best," with gentle mother, bothersome teen-age sister, chirpy younger sister and even a dog. But Jonno's dad doesn't know best, he only thinks he does, and Jonno feels put down, judged, pushed, and incapable of pleasing Phil Ayres, a "Renaissance Man," as he's been dubbed by the local paper.

At the beach, Jonno finds former buddy Peter has suddenly sprouted impressive new muscles along with an appetite for "scoping" girls. Jonno is baffled, then laid aside when Peter decides he prefers spending time with Jonno's rock freak sister to boyish bike rides and all-day adventures. The summer looks disappointing until Jonno meets Rob Loud, a middle-age man who plays the bagpipes and has the air of a living legend. Speaking in a beguiling Scottish brogue, Rob has all kinds of philosophical and folksy things to say, and he also plays haunting melodies that awaken in Jonno an unknown musical appetite. Jonno is entranced and mesmerized by his amazing friendship with this bigger-than-life war hero until he comes home late one early evening. Jonno's father, half out of envy, half out of overprotectiveness, forbids Jonno to see Rob without his permission.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 20, 1987 Home Edition Book Review Page 11 Book Review Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
The Nov. 8 Times review of "Boat Song" (Macmillan) included--but without credit--a reproduction of the jacket illustration of that book. The illustrator is Wende Caporale of North Salem, N.Y.

The book works best when Jonno is really squirming from his dad's disapproval and is longing for but afraid to ask for real understanding. His fascination with Rob, who lives by different standards than Jonno's middle-class family, is aptly told and entertaining. But this first novel spends much time in detailed description, a kind of thought-by-thought countdown of personal feelings that at times bogs the story down.

There is also much more drama to be evoked here: We have a small town by the sea, a boy who desperately feels betrayed by the standards of a strict and superior parent, and a mysterious man with bagpipes who has been fearless in the face of death. Yet these ingredients serve up only a light dish, instead of the hearty and spicy stew they might have become.

However, father-son stories, especially those dealing with the needs sons have from their fathers and what fathers are and can be to their sons, are important territory. Fathers have remained mysterious to so many children, and though daughters may write and howl and analyze, many sons march on without realizing where things went wrong or how their disappointment and loneliness originated.

Because of knowing Rob, Jonno is able to take the risk of daring to see and thus know his father differently, which enables him to escape the maddening pattern of father-son alienation. This is truly one of the small heroic acts of life that can take place within any family.

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