By Maureen Tai, 18 April 2019
“That’s the end of school for you. You wait and wait. Then it’s over before you’re ready.” – Archer Magill
The Best Man is an unapologetically American middle-grade novel set in Chicago, Illinois. It begins with a wedding and ends with a wedding, and in between are six years of Archer Magill’s young life, narrated by the big-hearted and endearingly clueless schoolboy. His story has some highs, some lows, and some in-betweens, but what makes it memorable is how deeply he and his family – his grandparents, parents and uncle, in particular – care for each other. Not in a saccharine, idealised, Leave it to Beaver* sort of way, but in the way families love each other in real life. Some goods, some bads, and some in-betweens. But always, a whole lotta love. Even same-sex love. But I get ahead of myself.
Archer is six when he is a ring bearer at the wedding of the granddaughter of one of his grandmother’s friends. It is a porch wedding, the porch being that of Grandma Magill’s. Archer’s mail-delivery, ruffly white velvet outfit is too small for him, and the embarrassed little boy decides to sit out the wedding by hiding under the porch. He is caught out by the other ring bearer, Lynette Stanley, a bossy, no-nonsense girl his age. She and Archer, chalk and cheese. So of course she becomes one of his closest friends through middle school. Lynette drags Archer out, making him fall. He splits his skin-tight velvet shorts in the process. Both Archer and his muddy bum make their debut at the wedding, and on YouTube.
It is a hilarious scene, and one of several in the book. The Best Man also has a cast of characters that are sufficiently outlandish to be unforgettable, yet not unbelievable. I’m sure that out there in the big wide world, there exists a tattooed, flick-knife armed first-grader like Jackson Showalter; a tech-savvy, precocious and entrepreneurial fourth-grader like Natalie Schuster; a drop-dead gorgeous, military-trained, built-like-Rambo student teacher like Mr. (Ed) McLeod; an absent-minded, disorganised and computer illiterate homeroom teacher like Ms. Roebuck; and a posh (but not-obnoxiously entitled), intelligent and wickedly forthright descendent of the British royal family like the Hon. Hilary Evelyn Calthorpe.
As much as Archer’s life is enriched by these personalities, he is kept grounded by his family, who display their humanity in understated acts of daily kindness that shine luminously in Archer’s honest and straightforward narration. As Archer progresses through school and its attendant changes, he sees his Grandpa survive a stroke, and witnesses his uncle falling in love. He experiences a loved-one’s death, and learns to live with the loss. He participates in a costume party with his entire family, and emerges without any psychological scarring. If you’re not familiar with baseball or the different makes of American cars, some of Archer’s references will go over your head. But there is no mistaking the heart in this book. Richard Peck’s last novel before his passing in 2018 is a feel-good romp through the life and times of a typical American school kid, and quite possibly, an ode to the goodness of family and friends.
On second thoughts, not that different from Leave it to Beaver after all.
For ages 10 and up.
* A black and white, 1950s American tv sitcom that I unabashedly adored as a child. Malaysian tv channels were not known for their up-to-datedness when I was growing up.