Themes and Characters
Nobody understands Peter, nor does he feel appreciated. He has just learned that he is adopted and that a baby is on the way. "I knew they would love the baby more than me," he asserts. Also, as the novel begins, Peter is dead, and he finds his funeral not particularly satisfying. His parents point out that he was impulsive, acting without thinking, and that there was nothing Mrs. Hazelton could have done to avoid running him over. Even in death, it seems, he is insulted by those closest to him.
Why Peter would want to go back to his old life is not entirely clear. While he liked being able smell and taste while alive, everybody was mean to him. Peter says, "But after Mom found out she was going to have a baby, when I was eleven, I could never do anything right." It only occurs to him later that he did not try to do anything, right or otherwise. Once he starts helping his pregnant mother with household chores, he discovers that she can actually be pleased with him.
But his parents are tough on him: Dad asks, "How much time you spend doing this kind of stuff? Messing with sequins and sewing little costumes?" "Waste of time," says Mom about Peter's interests. When Dad asks about what is worrying him, Peter knows, "He [Dad] was pretending to care, but I knew it really made him angry when I didn't act cheerful about everything." Fortunately, he also had a good friend: "Eloise was smart, and she was my best friend." She seems to accept him even when he is sulky and rude.
The disembodied voice that tells him he has a chance to change his life and avoid death also warns him that he must treat his own emotions as if they had substance, though Peter complains "But I couldn't just control my emotions by will power." As if to prove it, he runs into the street a second time, this time to be run over by a taxi. On his next try, he runs to the street, catches himself, stays on the sidewalk, but is run over again anyway. Whatever the disembodied voice wants out of Peter, it requires much more work than Peter realized. Throughout the story, the length of time it takes Peter to decide what to do increases. These periods mark how much more thinking Peter has learned to do before he acts; he changes from an impulsive character to a more thoughtful one. He realizes, "But Mom was right about how I acted without thinking, rushed into things. Maybe they were right about some other things, too."
Physically inept, Peter's first efforts to please his parents and earn their approval do not work out well. "I was trying to be the kind of person Dad wanted, and it wasn't working. It was worse than before." He switches from making puppets to making a flip book of a baseball being pitched and then hit; he finds the work "boring" but he is surprised that his parents find it boring, too. There is a lesson in that. On the other hand, towering athlete Kurt Meyer, teaches Peter something of great value: How to demand quality work and how to get it out of someone. He even has clumsy Peter playing baseball after school in a quest to capture the motions of pitching and hitting exactly right. In a later life, Peter uses this experience to coach Meyer in how to make papier-mache puppets; Meyer even seems disappointed when Peter does not demand his best work.
Kurt Meyer, athlete and bully, turns out to have his good qualities. This surprises Peter, but it adds to Peter's growing maturity. When Peter has his last try at life, he makes his picture book assignment about a batted ball rather than a haunted house— something that amused him more than it amused others. "Realistic details are what make people believe things they find hard to believe," Eloise tells Peter. The baseball story is good: A ball is swatted so hard that it leaves earth, eventually orbiting a distant star. Life evolves on the baseball. Meyer, who is usually bored with art, actually likes the book. "Research helps you make it realistic. And the more realistic it is, the more you believe in the magic," Peter says to Meyer. Peter had researched escape velocities and other details of his tale, grounding the fantasy in a reality that his audience, including Meyer, could understand and appreciate. The research also required that Peter control his impulses, to think about what he was doing:
I remembered what Mom had said at my funeral about how I always acted without thinking. Doing the opposite—thinking before acting—was one of the ways I had decided to try to change, to fix my life this time.
His lessons learned from working with Meyer are also applied to his parents.
"My problems with Dad weren't just that he didn't understand me—the way I acted was part of it, too," Peter observes, so he helps around the house, treats his mother with care, and presents a friendlier face to his parents. Instead of crying and running to his room when told that he was adopted, he takes advantage of knowing it was coming, steels himself, and behaves reasonably, emphasizing the joy of the coming infant. This surprises his parents and seems to increase their respect for him. Peter decides to make his stage at home rather than in shop, involving his father in helping him buy wood at a lumberyard. His father eventually joins Peter in his work on the stage, indicating that Dad can grow, too. However, the situation is not yet ideal— Dad still says to Peter, "But this puppet stuff is kinda sissy." Further, Peter's self-image is far from perfect. When he puts on his puppet show for his parents, the boy— who obviously represents him—says that "I'm so funny-looking." This alludes to his mother complaining about his thin neck and the dark rings around his eyes.
Another person that Peter wants to appreciate him is Eloise, his "smart friend." Peter admits that his affection for Eloise is somewhat selfish: "Eloise was pretty in an odd way, with very pale red hair, and she was a better student than I was. She loved art, too, but she just couldn't draw. She thought I was kind of a genius at it, which is why we became friends." Peter is an artist who likes to have an appreciative audience, but it is hard to say exactly what Eloise gets out of the friendship. One thing she receives is Peter's trust; telling someone that he has died repeatedly because of his immaturity and his inability to control his emotions cannot be easy. Eloise also finds herself involved in Peter's schemes to avoid a fourth and final death, and she contributes much to Peter's efforts to understand and appreciate his parents.
Thus, Peter's efforts are not in a vacuum. Eloise, once she understands what has happened, gives excellent advice, and her support helps to steady Peter's emotions. The voice Peter hears in death, offers good, although cryptic, advice, pointing out the value of taking time to plan carefully and not just rushing off with the first idea that comes to mind. The voice also likes to remind Peter that his lack of emotional control is his downfall. Meyer unwittingly helps Peter to learn to take control of a situation and to take care to do precise, well-thoughtout work. His insistence on getting pitching and hitting motions right becomes a valuable lesson as Peter learns to apply these same standards to his art.