Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 511

Events unfold through the eyes of Marsh, an average twelve-year-old. His life is contentedly ordinary: in summer his hours are filled up with chores and fishing; in the winter his days are given to school and his evenings to skating. Sometimes he likes the rough-and-tumble of the hockey rink; at...

(The entire section contains 511 words.)

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Events unfold through the eyes of Marsh, an average twelve-year-old. His life is contentedly ordinary: in summer his hours are filled up with chores and fishing; in the winter his days are given to school and his evenings to skating. Sometimes he likes the rough-and-tumble of the hockey rink; at other times he likes to skate-dance with Shirley who, because she makes his knees hurt and gives him a stomach ache, seems destined to be his true love. At home Mom and Dad provide food, shelter, and—upon request— doses of ordinary adult wisdom about life's little problems.

He shares everything with his best friend Willy Taylor: making model airplanes, whispering about their teachers' private lives, thinking about the towns, states, and country beyond McKinley, talking about girls, and marveling at how weird ice is. Marsh and Willy inhabit a comfortable, narrow world from which they can observe the unknown wider world at leisure. They are boys ready, but not in a hurry, to learn the mysteries of adulthood; it is "the best time ever to be twelve moving towards thirteen."

In the case of Carl Wenstrom they discover mysteries indeed. Marsh and Willy begin to see in him what the adults have missed. He is not simply another graying, wrinkled, broken-down veteran of the Second World War; he is a man of fascinating paradoxes. Rumored to be psychologically damaged, Carl nonetheless has a strength about him that make supervisors and troublemakers alike back off. Often unkempt and drunk, he is suddenly transformed when he steps on the ice, in shoes rather than skates, into a graceful dancer whose arms, legs, and torso move in harmony. Although he seldom speaks to anyone, Carl communicates eloquently through his eyes, posture, and movements.

Quite by accident Marsh and Willy learn of the trauma that haunts Carl. His eerie, enchanting dance re-enacts the fatal plunge of a B-17 bomber shot down during the war. Blown free of the damaged aircaft, Carl tumbled earthward beside it, all the time seeing his friend Jimmy still trapped inside. A parachute saved Carl; nothing saved Jimmy and the other airmen. Out of this horror and the helplessness of the experience, Carl has created something beautiful. Then Marsh and Willy also see Carl begin another dance, different in mood and intent, after Helen's arrival at the rink. Here too the adults of McKinley at first misunderstand Carl. Although they regard him as showing off, Marsh and Willy see the new dance as a ballet of courtly gestures; they see movements of homage, adoration, and commitment.

Through Carl, Marsh and Willy learn about life's profoundest mysteries: war, death, and love. Young enough not to be blinded by adult custom or assumptions, they instinctively admire Carl's behavior at the rinks. On the hockey ice, Carl stands for fairness even amid mayhem undisciplined by rules. On the skating ice, Carl dances from the heart, careless of who watches and stares. Carl is a model of what an adult should be: independent, tough, fair, and uninterested in what the world whispers about him.

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