Peanut Butter and Chaos
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Peanut Butter and Chaos
Sam was on the fence. Literally, and figuratively.
Literally because he was perched atop the whitewashed wooden fence that encircled his home, a neat, red-roofed blue bungalow with a large garden. In the garden, his father, Gordon Templeton, pinched tomato bleeders. After work and on weekends, Dad loved to putter in his garden almost more than anything.
Figuratively had nothing to do with a real fence. It meant he was on the edge of a next step he wasn’t sure he should take.
His father stood with a great crack of his knees, tripped over his feet, and caught himself just before falling. Typical Dad. Gordon Templeton had many positive attributes, but coordination was not one of them.
Sam opened his notebook.
Only his father called him Samuel, but an official experiment needed an official name. Plus, Dad was the only one who would see it.
It had all begun with a debate he and his friend Derek had last Sunday after watching the new Starlingman vs The Chameleon movie. Derek said the best superpower was flight. Sam insisted it was invisibility. Then it hit him.
He was invisible. He was invisible to his father.
The thought shook him as he wondered how long it had been like this. Maybe a while. Maybe a long time. Sure, they talked about school and TV shows and friends and stuff, but it was like his father was talking about one thing and thinking about something else. Sam might as well have been talking to the toaster.
Until now, almost 13-year-old Sam and his dad, Gordon Templeton, have lived quiet, almost uncomplicated lives in a town in Manitoba called Gilla Farm which is so small it isn’t on any map, and, when asked where they live, its citizens reply, “Just outside Winnipeg.”
Almost uncomplicated lives, but not quite.
Sam’s mother, Dory, left him and his father when Sam was just six-months-old and supposedly returned to her home in Iceland, but no one knows where she is. That complication doesn’t usually bother Sam. “That his mother left him as soon as he was old enough to eat solid food was tragic, but he had no memory of her. Only stories. That’s why he thought of her as ‘Dory’ and not ‘Mom.’” And until recently, his father, who is known in town as the owner of the Playland Video Arcade and who also used to be a neuroscience researcher at the Raynor Institute in Winnipeg, has given Sam all the parenting he needed. He has been present in Sam’s life, and Sam has been present in his father’s eyes. They’ve always talked openly and frankly about Dory, too. But Sam has recently begun to really wonder about her, and his father doesn’t know any of the details he wants to know about. Like, if she’d been like Sam when she was a kid, or what her favorite book was, or if she’d played soccer or baseball, like Sam does. There had been just one, very short, letter from her after she left. They had married young, his father said, and he couldn’t answer those questions.
The only mementos Sam has of Dory are a tray, a baby blanket locked away in a trunk, and a pillow, and all of them have a pattern on them called the “Helm of Awe”. The “Helm of Awe” is an ancient Icelandic symbol for protection. Sam likes that pattern. It makes him think of mysteries and adventure. He loves Icelandic myths and legends, too, and the thought of magic and superpowers, but he decides that at almost 13, and if he wants his father’s attention, it’s time to put all that stuff aside and think more like his father thinks. But they are so different. His dad is all about science and facts—just the facts—while he, Sam, prefers to read, dream and draw.
Another complication is his 16-year-old neighbor, Thyla Smith. That complication hasn’t really bothered Sam either because, even though Sam isn’t smart the way his dad and Thyla are—she’s the youngest kid from Gilla Farm ever to start university—he’d done lots of things with his dad. He’d had all of his attention. Or had he?
Thyla is much more like his father than he is. And the reason she’ll be attending university this fall is because her parents hired his dad to tutor her when she was back in seventh grade. She’s won school, regional and national science fairs. She’s super-smart, pretty, good at everything she does, and is liked by everyone. “She is perfect”, and “Sometimes in his most private thoughts he wished she’d just disappear. People like Thyla shone so bright that others faded away.”
Okay, maybe the Thyla complication does bother him. Maybe he’s jealous of her.
However, Sam’s end-of-summer experiment isn’t about his mother or Thyla. It’s about his connection to his father. Sam has an apparently simple enough premise: he believes he’s invisible to his dad. Ergo, the testable question for his experiment: Am I invisible? And completing the other eight steps of the Nine Step Scientific Method to test and prove the question and come to a conclusion should be simple.
But when Sam is suddenly struck by a ‘bolt from the blue’—lightning that looks like it came from a blue sky and out of nowhere—nothing is simple anymore. Sam’s sight is altered. He sees things in pixels and somehow has to adapt to a kind of vision that makes him nauseous; Flum, a blue-skinned, non-binary being who looks like a troll doll and is from Osborne—an unknown ‘alternate’ place—arrives with the lightning, and, though Sam now sees earth-things in pixels, he is the only person who can see and hear Flum clearly; Thyla disappears, and no one, including his dad, even remembers she was a real person who lived next door to Sam all of his life; and the mystery of Sam’s mother’s disappearance a dozen years ago deepens.
In Peanut Butter and Chaos, Anita Daher takes readers inside Sam Templeton’s head, body, and world with scientific facts and vivid imagery.
Then everything stopped. All nature sounds fell away. The wind stilled. Animals and insects quietened. Sam’s eyes fluttered open and he looked around. That was when he noticed the lamppost. It glowed an icy blue.
Sam jumps off the page as a real boy who has self-doubt but is strong, resilient, imaginative and driven to find answers, much more like his father than he thinks he is. He suffers severe trauma when he’s hit by lightning, but he pushes through it and rises above it to find a way to get through the secondary traumas the strike causes: his strange sight and the crippling anxiety that comes with the knowledge lightning almost never, but not never, strikes the same person twice.
The pace is reasonably fast, and readers have the opportunity to absorb the problems Sam is trying to work through. His conversations with his best friend before Derek leaves on a two-week holiday ring true. His thoughts about Thyla also feel authentic. And when he takes to the streets in a suit borrowed from Thyla’s hydro line-worker mother that is designed to prevent electrocution, the comments and reactions of his friends are heartening.
Sam’s dad, Gordon, is also a fully-developed character. One sees, hears, and feels his concern for his son, his resurfacing grief over the loss of a wife he loved, and his willingness to open his mind to investigate things he doesn’t understand. His not-so-graceful movements are slapstick comedy, but they add to his charm.
Many young readers will relate fully to Sam’s conundrums, and both young readers and adults will relate to these characters.
Along with the complicated parent-child relationship theme, Daher takes us into the worlds of Icelandic myths, legends, runes, and magic, and sci-fi time and space travel. Again, the imagery is vivid: “Against its blue skin, its clothing was silver as minnows in moonlight”, and as one follows Sam through his journey of discovery, the concept of magic being science we haven’t yet discovered comes to life. Eventually, one almost believes it might be possible for someone to have special powers and vibrate through walls.
However, the character Flum is not very convincing. Though they and Sam are the same age, Flum is supposed to be a being who comes from a place where travelling to ‘alternate’ worlds is commonplace. For such a being, Flum seems pretty unresourceful and lacking in tools for survival if accidents occur. Their appearance and behavior are reminiscent of the movie ET. That said, the fact that Flum is non-binary perhaps provides a mirror for human children who have felt ‘other’, ostracized and lonely, and a place for discussion about that to happen.
Also in question is some of the science. When ants build their labyrinths, the passages are connected to the surface so air gets in. When Sam and Flum create an underground tunnel, they seal the connection to the surface. And when Sam, Dad and Flum use it and we get to, “It’s like cement.… When they had compressed the space, every loose stone had been embedded”, this reader wonders why these air-breathing beings haven’t all smothered.
After the lightning strike, the pace picks up, and, at one point, there is so much imparted so quickly my brain said, “Nope. Too much.” While Peanut Butter and Chaos is the first book in a series and I’m aware storylines for the book to follow need to be established, even if I remember there is a lot of suspension of disbelief to do here, it just doesn’t seem feasible no one in Gilla Farm remembers Thyla when she disappears, especially when they remember everything else that occurred before the lightning strike. No hints indicate why that might be, and there’s no surprise indicated when she suddenly reappears. And the emergence of a ‘dark threat’ hanging over Sam and Sam’s great-aunt Halla’s being afraid to use his name make that aspect of the story begin to feel like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.
Overall though, the story is both familiar and new, has intriguing concepts, interesting characters, and Daher’s Peanut Butter and Chaos will provide teachers and students with many avenues for discussion.
Jocelyn Reekie is a writer, editor and publisher in Campbell River, British Columbia.