Some people just have an amazing grasp on what it means to be genuine and to be human. Barbara O’Connor is one of those people. Wish is the story of Charlie, an 11-year old girl from Raleigh, NC, whose father is in a ‘correctional facility’ and whose mother is having trouble ‘getting back on her feet.’ (We gather, as adults reading the text, that her mother might struggle with depression or alcoholism as we learn that she is disengaged and spends most of her time in bed or on the couch. Young readers may likely only understand that Charlie’s mother is somehow unwell) Charlie is sent to live with her mother’s sister, Bertha and her husband, Gus in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina while her older sister, Jackie gets to stay with a friend’s family in Raleigh.
Initially, the transition is incredibly difficult for Charlie. She’s lonely, misses her sister and sees the little town of Colby as a backwater filled with small-town ‘hillbillies.’ She struggles with her temper and with fitting in at school and really doesn’t feel that she belongs. She has a habit of making a secret wish everyday and searches throughout the day, every day, to find something to wish on (a first star, a dandelion, 3 birds on a wire.) The reader gets the sense, throughout the book, that Charlie wishes only to be returned to her family in Raleigh. Then, she meets Wishbone…a stray dog that she works to lure in and make her own. Her relationships with Wishbone, a local boy named Howard and Gus and Bertha begin to change her perspective and ultimately her life.
O’Connor’s characters are real, flawed and incredibly lovable. She doesn’t hold back from depicting the Colby ‘hillbillies’ just as they are: they have furniture on their porch and cars in their yard. But, she also perfectly depicts the love that exists in that town and in those homes and shows the reader (rather than telling him/her) why belongings and appearances aren’t what matters. Howard, the friend that Charlie reluctantly makes, has an ‘up down walk’ and a heart of gold. It would be difficult to read about this Owen Meany-like boy without falling in love with his spirit and his heart.
Bertha and Gus are good, simple people and Charlie is a amazing little girl who has simply experienced too much in her young life. If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you will recognize the Odom (Howard’s) family, the neighbors from church and Scrappy (Charlie’s incarcerated father.) Even Jackie, Charlie’s slightly rough-around-the-edges older sister is depicted with both street smarts and heart. Somehow O’Connor manages to depict the failings of each of her characters without abandoning their spirits…you’ll clearly understand what changes Charlie’s mind about Colby by the end of the book.
Wish’s plot is also extremely believable. While it would be easy to make this book trite and formulaic, O’Connor resists the urge and allows her characters to behave in ways both heroic, fearful and embarrassing. She doesn’t shy away from showing the vulnerabilities of each of her characters…you can see the difficulty of Charlie’s situation in her bravado, Jackie’s bragging and Bertha’s inability to stop talking! O’Connor’s depiction of the quandary that faces this little girl is raw without being too painful and hopeful without being sappy. Don’t be surprised, however, if some of Charlie’s triumphs and pain bring a tear to your eye!
As an adult, I read this book with relish because of the delightful characterizations of these small-town folks. I cared about Charlie and wanted to see what would happen to her. While I feel strongly that young readers will also feel that kinship with O’Connor’s characters, I also believe that the story and the lessons (‘Don’t judge a book by its cover. Home is where your heart is. Thank God for unanswered prayers.’) will resonate soundly with their sense of adventure and justice. While this may not be a book that I would have picked up to read by myself, I highly recommend finding a young person with whom to read it: any excuse will do to submerse yourself in Charlie’s story! You won’t regret it!
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