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Saturday, April 9, 2011

Nothing, written by Janne Teller and translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken. Atheneum, Simon & Schuster. 2010. $21.99 ages 12 and up

"He yelled at us too.
"It's all a waste of time,' he yelled. "Everything begins only to end. The moment you were born you began to die. that's how it is with everything."
"The Earth is four billion, six hundred million years old, and you're going to reach one hundred at the most!" he yelled another day. "It's not even worth the bother."
And he went on."

If you don't mind stark, bleak, raw, uncompromising, taut, unforgettable, this is a book that you should read. There were times when I just had to stop, it was scaring me that much! Yet, I kept reading and would recommend this book despite its troubling and haunting effect on me. I will not soon forget it, and I am quite sure that it will be in my top ten books read in 2011. It is that good!
As a seventh grader, Pierre Anthon determines that 'nothing matters'. He announces this revelation to his classmates before he leaves school to sit in a plum tree and toss hard plums at passers-by. His classmates know better:

"We had just started seventh grade, and we were all so modern and so well-versed in life and being in the world that we knew everything was more about how it appeared than how it was. The most important thing, in any circumstance, was to amount to something that really looked like it was something. And though that something as yet seemed rather vague and unclear to us, it certainly had nothing to do with sitting in a plum tree, pitching plums into the street."

Those classmates make a plan to prove that something does matter. They start a collection they call the 'heap of meaning' and vow to build it high and higher with those things that mean something. They bring their own significant items and then ask friends and neighbors for the same, but:

"In just a few days it grew almost as tall as little Ingrid. Nevertheless, it was still short on meaning. We all knew that none of what we had collected mattered to us, really, so how were we supposed to convince Pierre Anthon that it did?"

The decide to give it deeper thought. It starts with a favorite book collection, a fishing rod, a black soccer ball and parrot earrings. Each is important to the person adding it to the heap. As the collection grows from person to person, it turns into something much darker and each classmate involved begins to force the next one to give up more than material possessions.

Agnes is the narrator. She is clearly concerned about the path her friends have chosen, and she tries to get them to realize it is getting out of hand. But, once started, no one seems able to stop its trajectory. Agnes cannot opt out; they are all in it together. They tell no one. Each one of them is bent on proving Pierre wrong.

The 'heap' at the sawmill grows as does the tension and anger. One day, they cannot seem to take it anymore and it leads to a brawl. Agnes runs for Pierre Anthon, who climbs out of his tree and makes his way to the sawmill. There he derides his classmates and dares them to prove him wrong. It is too much:

"Pierre Anthon had won.
But then he made a mistake.
He turned his back on us."

I will leave you to get your hands on this book, if you want to know what really happened. Certainly not a book for everyone, but you will be changed by reading it.

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