Heart of a Shepherd by Rosanne Parry

heart-of-a-shepherdCindy: Brother is just shy of twelve-years-old when he must step up and help his grandfather run their Oregon farm after his father is shipped off to Iraq. The theme of conflict and loss runs throughout the story from the opening chess sequence to Brother’s fights with his older brothers when they come home and compete for control, to battles with nature like the dangerous plains fire that threatens their sheep, their farm, and their lives. Seeded throughout Heart of a Shepherd (Random House, 2009) is Brother’s growing comfort and strength through religion as he searches for his place in the world. If I had finished this book earlier, it would have made my Top Picks for Middle Grades list. Rarely do books for youth address spirituality in such an organic manner. Brother is the youngest of five boys, his real name is Ignatius–“Guess they ran out of all the good saints by the time they got to me.” He takes his job as alter boy seriously and helps the new traveling priest deal with the local folks and their routines, but his quiet Quaker grandfather also influences his views on the role of religion in helping him with the joys and the struggles his family faces.

Parry’s prose is full of wonderful descriptions. She got my attention immediately in the opening chess game when Brother says:

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.

Or, when he describes his personal queen:

Rosita’s my queen, of course. She’s a fifth grader up at the school, and my best friend’s sister. She can birth a lamb and kill a rattlesnake with a slingshot, which is what I look for in a queen. Plus, she’s as pretty as a day in spring, and she laughs when I’m the one talking.

I’ve admitted more than once my love of inter-generational stories. I’m not sure why they appeal to me so much but one of the reasons, I’m sure, is my firm belief that the young and old have much to teach each other. This book shows that very nicely.

Lynn: I totally agree with Cindy! If I’d read this before we made our favorites lists, I would have wedged this onto the Middle Readers list. I normally run the other way from books that make me cry but this one attracted me for a lot of reasons. There just aren’t enough books about families dealing with parents serving in the military, especially with the situation of reserve units going to war zones for long periods. Y chromosomes dominate my family – even our new kittens are male – and I am drawn to stories of boys growing up and dealing with the expectations of what it means to be male. Parry does this wonderfully while exploring the issues of coping with having a parent in the war zone. Before his father leaves for Iraq, Brother tells him:

I’m going to take care of this place.” It’s going to be here. It’s going to be just the way you remember it when you get back.

That’s my mission and I’ll see it done.

Managing a ranch is a big mission for a boy and his grandfather. It means incredibly hard work on top of school and huge responsibility. The setting felt so tangible to me with the every day details of ranch life skillfully portrayed. Brother’s descriptions of pain on the loss of a lamb had me searching for Kleenex early on!

I hate this part of ranching…Animals die and it feels the same amount of awful every time.

I also thought Parry’s depictions of the fears families carry was wonderfully done. Having had a son serve in Iraq, I thought she really captured those scenes of anxiety so well – waiting for an email, the horrible fascination of the television reporting, and the dread of seeing those uniformed officers arriving with bad news.

Brother is a nicely realized character – vivid, authentic. He and all the characters are slightly larger than life, but I was more than willing to go along with that. This is a book that made me laugh and cry and that I will recommend heartily.

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

4 Comments on "Heart of a Shepherd by Rosanne Parry"

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  1. labsnbooks@aol.com' Brenda Kahn says:

    I have been hearing about this on so much in the past few weeks. I sat in a Mock Newbery last week and this was one of the finalists. Librarians couldn’t say enough about how much they loved this book. It eventually lost out to Calpurnia, but it was enough to get me to read it. Thanks for helping to push it higher on my tbr pile.

  2. jonarntson@gmail.com' Jon Arntson says:

    You gals are a hoot and I look forward to reading your reviews on a weekly basis!

  3. kconnett@marion.lib.oh.us' Kim says:

    Thank you for blogging about this book. It is not getting nearly the “press” as others this year and it is one of my top three! (Along with Calpurnia and When You Reach Me) Everytime it’s checked in – which isn’t often – I push to get someone to read it.

  4. mosylu@gmail.com' Maureen says:

    After reading this, I walked around murmuring “Wow, wow, wow,” to myself. If religion is thin on the ground in children’s books, Catholicism is thinner, and this is the first I’ve ever seen a vocation story. So impressed. Too bad it didn’t get any awards this morning.

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