"The Book of Fred"
(Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran OCT 13, 2002)I am sometimes dismayed when I pass by the "teen books" section in my local bookstore. Every book seems to be based on the life of a Pamela Anderson wannabe or show how to braid one's hair into a thousand different shapes. I'd probably have a sure fire bestseller if I wrote a book describing how Pamela Anderson braids her hair. Despite rumors to the contrary, I know today's teenagers do read, so I guess they just have to look elsewhere for intelligent, thought-provoking material. Abby Bardi's book, The Book of Fred would be an excellent choice for any thinking teen. A good many adults would enjoy it too.
The Book of Fred, a quirky title if I ever heard one, concerns a young woman, Mary Fred Anderson, who comes to live in suburbia after leaving an isolated religious compound. All of Mary Fred's siblings use some variation of Fred in their name, since a man named Fred Brown founded their sect. In addition to worshipping their founder, the Fredians (thankfully Bardi insists she made up the details of the religion) refuse most medical treatment and as a result, two of Mary Fred's brothers die from preventable illnesses. The state of Maryland swoops in and disperses the rest of the children among various foster families. Mary Fred settles with Alice Cullison, whose fractured family includes her sullen teenage daughter, Heather and Alice's ne'er do well brother, Roy.
While the story works on some level as a fish out of water story, with Mary Fred quickly adapting to such 20th century conventions as "The Jerry Springer Show" and Countrytime Lemonade, it more pointedly shows the effects that Mary Fred has on Alice's family. Mary Fred, or M.F., as Heather calls her, starts with encouraging the ragtag family to actually sit down together for dinner. Mary Fred muses to herself, ". . .Alice seemed surprised that here it was almost evening and we were going to have eat again, as if she didn't realize that we were all going to have eat today, and tomorrow, and every day after that. . .like she was thinking that she never knew for sure if the next day was going to happen or not."
Mary Fred is convinced that the next day is going to happen, she's just not sure that the world will continue after the "Big Cat," a millennial explosion the Fredians believe will happen on January 7, 2000. It is easy to accept Mary Fred's naiveté; it is less easy to accept the tenets of the Fredian religion Bardi created. The Fredians worship Fred Brown, to the point that they trace an F and a B in the air whenever they mention his name and even try to wear only brown clothes. They also eat mostly fish, due to some pronouncement in their holy book, The Book of Fred. Bardi doesn't let more mainstream religion off her hook, though. Alice and Mary Fred pay a visit to a local liberal "worship center" that seems to be more concerned with sending cows to Nicaragua than religion. It is a very interesting and original premise for a book, it'd be more believable, and raise some more disquieting questions, if each religion wasn't painted so broadly with the ridiculous brush.
Bardi chose to tell the story using each of the four main characters as narrators of their own chapter. It's a cute trick and it provides interesting insight into the inner workings of each characters mind, although it necessitates some repetition of the basic plot. She is most on target with Heather, Alice's surly daughter. Alice is divorced and mostly lets Heather do what she wants, which is to watch television nonstop and buy slutty clothes at the mall. Bardi has a good ear for teenage dialogue and angst, lending an air of believability to an otherwise fantastic story. Heather often follows a cool boy around the school parking lot, just so she can hear what he plays on his car stereo. "I can never figure out what's he's playing, though one day I'm pretty sure it was Rage Against the Machine." M.F. "has no sense of romance." The two young women develop a close relationship, each giving the other a dose of confidence.
The novel swerves, literally, about 3/4's of the way through when a horrible accident befalls the family. It leads the way into a not-altogether-satisfying conclusion, one that comes complete with Mary Fred's departure into a new isolated religious sect and subsequent metaphorical rebirth. Bardi's novel, although flawed, provides teens and adults with interesting insight into the twin institutions of family and religion, with enough fin-de-siecle cultural references to please even a character like Heather and irk one like Mary Fred.
- Amazon readers rating: from 29 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Book of Fred at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Book of Fred (2001)
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