Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451
Set in the turbulent 1960s, Gary Schmidt’s novel Okay for Now centers on the experiences of one teenage boy, Doug Swietek, but also allows the reader to appreciate the context of Doug’s family and school experiences. A connection to the war in Vietnam is made through the character of Doug’s older brother Lucas, a soldier who returns home with serious physical injuries and PSTD. The author uses a variety of characters to bring the reader’s attention to individual and social problems.
The complexities of Doug’s character is one of the book’s most interesting features. He faces a large number of difficulties he faces and shows tremendous courage and ingenuity in addressing them all. In particular, Doug is a good brother to both Lucas (the returned veteran) and Christopher (who seems headed for delinquency). A notable feature is Doug’s learning disability. Although the exact disability is not named, it has rendered him illiterate, and this condition has gone undetected all the way into high school. In this regard as well, Schmidt’s novel is well situated in its historical era. Dyslexia and other conditions that impede the development of reading skills were rarely diagnosed in the 60s, and specific treatment methods were correspondingly scarce.
As the protagonist, Doug has more than his share of troubles. His father is dishonest and verbally, sometimes physically abusive, which connects with some of Doug’s difficulties with sports in school. Schmidt ties up the novel’s plot points regarding sports well, as Coach Reed turns from adversary to sympathetic character and then to an ally and mentor for Lucas. Similarly, Doug’s connections with his teachers not only help him learn to read but turn him into an activist working to save a damaged rare book.
A parallel theme of appreciation for art, books, and science comes together in the plot about John James Audubon’s works and the school’s misguided destruction of a priceless volume. Doug’s awakening sense of the long-standing importance of art as captured in books connects with his own growing artistic talents. The birds’ characteristics also connect with those traits from which humans can benefit.
The multiple strengths of the novel can also be weaknesses, as Schmidt works to pack in many worthy themes. The idea that Doug is ordinary is contradicted by his almost superhuman abilities to overcome his problems, and within a very short period. Also, while the adult women, in the form of teachers, offer positive role models, Doug’s only female peer is stricken with a deadly, though apparently not fatal, illness. Her role then becomes subsidiary to the emphasis on Doug’s good qualities as a steadfast friend.