Review of Pamela Ehrenberg’s Ethan, Suspended
Rachel Bomberger is the Internet marketing manager at Eerdmans. She loves reading, writing, and yelling out answers to Jeopardy.
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You wouldn’t know it to look at me now, but I was once part of a tiny minority.
I’m white. I’m female. I’m Protestant. I live in a suburb that Wikipedia tells me is 94.51% full of people who have the same skin color as me. I’m a middle-class citizen of the great, bland Middle West, and in case you’re wondering: yes, I do have a great big jar of Miracle Whip in my fridge.
In this part of the world, I’m about as “majority” as they come. I haven’t always been, though.
As a child in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, I was one of three white children in my class. My sister and I were the only U.S. citizens in the entire school. (One other girl, I recall, was half Brazilian, but she was the closest thing to a fellow “American” there.)
After moving back stateside in third grade, I thought perhaps I might at last stick out from the crowd a little less. But having to start fresh in five new school systems (not counting two separate homeschooling episodes) within a decade meant that I spent most of my growing up years as part of an unenviable minority: a new kid.
It was years before I began to feel the slightest bit at home in my own skin. Ironically, this process began in two schools just beyond the border of Washington D.C. that remain some of the most ethnically diverse communities (though, somehow, unselfconsciously so) that I’ve ever been part of.
Why do I tell you all this? I guess perhaps it’s to build some kind of “street cred” for myself, to show that, despite my comfortable, homogenous, white-bread-and-Miracle-Whip present day, I remember well what it is to be an outsider. And as such, I can appreciate firsthand books about kids who must live as outsiders – books like Pamela Ehrenberg’s Ethan, Suspended.
When the book opens and we first meet the star of Ehrenberg’s young adult novel, seventh-grader Ethan Oppenheimer, he has just been uprooted from his comfortable existence in a white, middle-class suburban community (hmm, that sounds vaguely familiar) and plunked down in the urban Washington D.C. home of his astronomically uncool grandparents. Unbeknownst to him (he thinks he’s just there for a week or so), Ethan is about to spend a semester as the only white kid in an almost entirely black and Hispanic middle school. (Hmm, that also sounds vaguely familiar.)
Ostensibly, Ethan has been sent to his Rosenberg grandparents to give things “time to settle down” after an event that’s resulted in his suspension from school at home. Eventually, we find out exactly what the event was that got him into such trouble. Eventually, we find out, too, that isn’t really why he’s there.
In the meantime, though, Ethan has to go about the awkward business of learning to fit in and adjust to his new life. This doesn’t come easily for him:
With my old-people lunches in wrinkled plastic bags, I was basically a freak of nature at Parker Junior High. Like, “Come see the kid with seven heads” or, “Come see the kid who’s alive in a jar.” Everything I did — opening my locker, turning in homework, drinking from the water fountain — was so freakish the whole school had to stare. I didn’t even have to do anything stupid like trip or spill food. Just by being myself, I was the most ridiculous person alive.
Boy, I’ve been there. I’d wager most kids have. That, by the way, is what makes Ethan, Suspended such a great book.
Ehrenberg’s story is grounded in a very specific, concrete set of details and experiences. I can picture vividly the “Kiss and Ride” sign at the Silver Spring Metro station where Ethan, stranded, waits one night to be picked up by his friend’s dad. (My station growing up was Forest Glen, just one stop up from Silver Spring, and I can still immediately bring to mind those funny D. C. Metro “Kiss and Ride” signs.) I can hear the nightly noise of Jeopardy on Grandpa Rosenberg’s vintage television. (I used to watch Jeopardy with my grandmother.) I can smell the musty comic books Ethan finds in his dead uncle’s closet. (I imagine they smell just like the box of old Superman comic books I once found in my own grandparents’ basement.)
Yet despite this full-color, high-resolution portrait of a very specific set of circumstances, the book’s themes are astoundingly universal, applicable even to those who haven’t the foggiest idea of what a “Kiss and Ride” sign looks like.
After all, who doesn’t know what it is to feel out of place in a new environment — to feel like “the whole school was watching, waiting for me to do something stupid”?
Who doesn’t know what it is to remember making a very big mistake — to feel the red hot flush of remorse and wish to high heaven you had it all to do over again?
Who doesn’t know what it is to feel like life is unraveling before your eyes even as you are completely helpless to do anything about it?
And who doesn’t learn (in time) that difficulties and adversities are conquered not by Hollywood-esque moments of triumph or by hasty retreats but, rather, by living each day as it comes — and by learning to embrace the people and circumstances that life scatters along the way?
Who doesn’t know what it is to be Ethan?
I may not be a seventh-grade boy, or play jazz oboe, or eat dried-out dinners with my grandparents at 4:30 p.m., but I know what it is to be Ethan. And, like him, I’m learning as I go that being Ethan isn’t so bad.