I first read Chaim Potok's wonderful novel, The Chosen, as a teenager, and now, as an adult, I am treated to his riveting new book for teenagers, Zebra and Other Stories. All six concern young people facing a huge loss or crisis, and all feature the theme of rescue, either real, imagined, or unattainable. In the title story, for example, a boy nicknamed Zebra comes to terms with life after being hit by a car and losing his ability to do the thing he loves most run. He is helped by an itinerant art teacher who shows him how to look beyond his injuries to the surrounding world, to look at the edge of your hand and at the space outside. In "B.B.," a boy realizes that his father has left the family only to change his mind quickly and return, yet the boy can't discuss this horrible secret with anyone. As B.B. notes: "Sometimes it seems to me that half of the stories in the papers and on TV are about the secrets people have, and the other half are about what they do when the secrets are uncovered."
In another splendid story, "Nava," when a girl is menaced by a drug dealer who has a crush on her, she turns to Navajo chants and healing powers for help, powers that saved her father's life in Vietnam. In "Isabel," a girl mourns her late father and brother while her mother remarries an architect with a drinking problem and his own teenage girl. As this man redesigns not only her house but her life, Isabel and her new stepsister come to terms with their losses and with each other. All the title characters are heartachingly real, while a good many of the adults seem particularly insensitive (as indeed many always seem to be from a teen's perspective!). The adults repeatedly believe their children are too young to deal with various issues and knowledge, while, in fact, their offspring are already dealing with these things.
Potok knows that real problems have no easy answers. His timeless plots and prose need no in-your-face gimmicks to be fresh, while there are feather-light touches of magic and mysticism and plenty of references to contemporary issues, such as war, weapons, drugs, child labor in foreign countries, death and illness. Here's a collection to make readers not only think and feel, but to examine personal tragedies and triumphs, and, last, but hardly least, to increase their understanding of family dynamics, political duties, and personal dilemmas. All of this in 146 easy-to-read pages is quite a literary feat!
Alice Cary is an author and reviewer in Groton, Massachusetts.