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An Ocean in Iowa
by Peter Hedges

reviewed by J.M. Frank

Peter Hedges, the author and screenplay writer for What's Eating Gilbert Grape, has followed up with another story of a boy growing up, but this time from the perspective of a seven-year-old. There is much to be said for this novel. The prose is smooth and seamlessly crafted. The characters come alive as real and complex people. The book has many humorous passages, with the humor coming from the realism demonstrated with the situations and characters.

Hedges does an amazing job getting into the mind of a seven-year-old. For anyone who has forgotten what it was like to be a young child, this novel will immediately transport the reader to that stage in his or her life. Much of the humor in the book arises simply from hearing the beliefs, expectations, and perspectives of a seven-year-old. This is not to say that Hedges makes fun of his protagonist. Billy Ocean is always treated sympathetically, but we do get to live through the eyes of a fully-realized child for a day, including his often grandiose conclusions and self-centered universe.

Despite the craftsmanship evident throughout this novel, however, many will find this book to be disappointing. By the end, I felt as if I had done nothing more than watch a mildly involving television program. The novel was entertaining and easy to digest, but I was left still hungry. I was not strongly moved emotionally, I did not gain any major insights (except maybe that little things can seem big to a kid), and I was not amused sufficiently to make the positive aspects of the book alone worth the trip.

The problem appears to lie in the lack of a fully developed story. I have never been an advocate of predictable, traditional plotlines, however the reader must be taken on a little more of a ride then they are in Hedge's book. The plot basically revolves around a year in the life of a boy as he watches his family break up and tries to cope with the situation. There are no major twists nor any real serious dilemmas. A boy has to cope, and he does.

Although the Billy Ocean character is written realistically and sympathetically, I never came to care too deeply about him because, quite frankly, there was nothing to worry about here. In the end, the novel really turns into a series of amusing and entertaining vignettes which are probably more suitable for a collection of short stories. If one chooses to read this book, read it with these shortcomings in mind. If you come in to An Ocean in Iowa thinking something big will happen, you are bound to be disappointed.

An Ocean in Iowa

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The writer of this article welcomes your comments: jmfrank@mindjack.com