Jackson Hurd (that’s Jack, not Jackie) is the son in a fourth-generation farm family two miles from Eastham, Maine. His parents are soft-spoken, well-educated, pacifistic, and, according to Mrs. Stroud of Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services, the best foster parents she knows. They and Jack are the last resort of Joseph Brook, a 13-year-old sent to the juvenile detention center Stone Mountain for trying to kill a teacher. His experiences there (and previously, with his abusive father) have left him silent, afraid of being touched, and instantly traumatized if anybody stands behind him. Oh, and he has a three-month-old daughter named Jupiter, whom he is legally prevented from seeing.
Joseph arrives, sullen, unspeaking, defensive – but the Hurds’ cows like him, which in Jack’s opinion shows that he can be trusted. As Jack’s wonderfully understated narrative reveals, Joseph can indeed be trusted to be decent, precociously intelligent – and to reject any behavior that doubts his capacity to love his daughter, as he loved her mother. Jack supports Joseph whole-heartedly; in matters large and small, he “has Joseph’s back.” Unfortunately, some of the behavior that keeps Joseph from his daughter is a legal tangle that even a sympathetic social worker and Jack’s supportive parents have trouble unraveling. To 12-year-old Jack, as to Joseph, the issue is simple. What can a 13-year-old do for his baby? “He can love her.” The strength of this very powerful novella lies in its capacity to convince the reader that the two boys are right. That love can overcome all obstacles. That given the Hurds’ support, Jupiter and her father might be united under their watchful care. That, in short, the world is just.
Generally speaking, books with 12-year-old narrators are marketed as middle-grade fiction; the issue of early-teen pregnancy may push this book into young adult category.
In fact, however, this is a book for adults. It begs for compassion and understanding. Its voice is pitch perfect. The descriptions of the freezing Maine winter, juxtaposed with Joseph’s gradual thawing, are beautifully done. It’s a heartbreaking read that is bound to stay with readers of any age long after the book is closed.
“Orbiting Jupiter ” is available through Wilmington’s Pettee Memorial Library, Dover Free Library, Whitingham Free Public Library or Bartleby’s Books in Wilmington.
Laura Stevenson lives in Wilmington, and her most recent novels, “Return in Kind” and “Liar From Vermont,” are both set in Wilmington.