12-year-old "Brother" lives on a cattle ranch in rural Oregon with his father and grandparents (his mother having run off to Europe when he was five). He is the youngest of five boys, and the only one still living at home full-time. When his military reservist father is called up for a tour in Iraq, Brother takes it upon himself to keep the ranch running smoothly. Rosanne Parry's Heart of a Shepherd is the story of Brother's coming of age in trying times. It's a beautiful, moving story. I cried more than once, especially at the end.
Heart of a Shepherd is full of positive messages -- about doing your duty, about looking out for people who depend on you, and about being true to your beliefs -- but never feels preachy. I think it works because the characters are strong. You don't get the sense that the author is suggesting a particular way or behavior, but rather that the characters live and breathe by their own individual moral codes. Their choices reflect their beliefs. This is particularly true of Brother, his father, and his grandfather.
I liked Brother a lot. He's a ranch kid, sure, but he just might be too tender-hearted for the business. He's imaginative (he assigns chess pieces individual personalities) and kind to animals, but he's not above throwing something at a girl to get her attention, or starting a fight with his brothers. Here are a couple of examples of Brother's voice:
"Now, to my mind, pawns are a shifty-looking bunch, plus they clutter up the board, so I try to clear most of them off right away, his and mine. I like my knights to have plenty of room to ride." (The Chess Men)
"After the opening blessing, Mrs. Hobbs launches into the Gloria a full two octaves above human range. Somewhere there are dogs getting spiritual edification from this. The rest of us are just bumbling along in search of a key." (Serving the Altar)
"If you are looking for loud lamenting, a Basque family's the way to go." (Coming Home)
The ranch setting gives Heart of a Shepherd the feel of a historical novel, to me anyway, even though it's set in modern times. I found references to sending email and ordering cow vaccines online faintly incongruous (though of course the war in Iraq is taking place now). Heart of a Shepherd is a window into a lifestyle that I'm not sure many people know about (having to go away to boarding school for high school, because there is no high school where you live, for example). I think it would pair well with Fran Cannon Slayton's When the Whistle Blows or Kirby Larson's Hattie Big Sky.
Sometimes you read a book, and, regardless of other attributes, you notice that the prose is beautiful. With Heart of a Shepherd, it's not so much that the prose is beautiful (though there are lovely passages), as that the ideas are beautiful. It's the kind of book that you want to share with others. Although this isn't a long book, I think it will be a crossover title that will please adult readers. But not to worry -- there's plenty or danger and heroism to engage middle grade readers, too.
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: January 27, 2009
Source of Book: Advance Review Copy from the author (at the Kidlitosphere conference in Portland, OR in October of 2008). Quotes are from the ARC, and should be checked against the final printed book.
Other Blog Reviews: Mrs. V's Reviews, Shelf Elf
Author Interviews: Cynsations
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.