An Ocean in Iowa

An Ocean in Iowa

4.5 2
by Peter Hedges

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In a small town in Iowa, Scotty Ocean has announced that seven is going to be his year. It does turn out to be his year, but not quite the one he had imagined. It is the year his mother abandons the family. At first, Scotty does astonishing things to get her to return. When he realizes she won't be coming back, he decides he must replace her. And when that proves


In a small town in Iowa, Scotty Ocean has announced that seven is going to be his year. It does turn out to be his year, but not quite the one he had imagined. It is the year his mother abandons the family. At first, Scotty does astonishing things to get her to return. When he realizes she won't be coming back, he decides he must replace her. And when that proves impossible, he takes the dramatic step of trying to remain seven forever.
Funny, sad, and constantly surprising, An Ocean in Iowa explores the fragile contracts between parents and children and what it really means to grow up.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Shirley Manson Harper's Bazaar This funny and supremely moving book is full of hope and possibilities and robustness of spirit.

Jen Nessel The New York Times Book Review Hedges has the ability to climb into a child's mind and simply look around.

Cynthia Hanson The Christian Science Monitor Hedges manages to make his novel a delightful romp through the age of seven with an endearing character who revels in life's smallest details.

Patrick Beach The Des Moines Register Hedges absolutely shines....An Ocean in Iowa is funny, touching, mysterious, and absurd.

Liesel Litzenburger Detroit Free Press Peter Hedges's quietly devastating new unapolegetically simple and pure, a sadly perfect little tale.

Dale Jones Cedar Rapids Gazette An Ocean in Iowa is a delightful read, full of fancy and vivid imagery of suburban Iowa in the 1960s.

Michael Giltz Entertainment Weekly Funny, unaffected prose...'A.'

School Library Journal
YA-Scotty Ocean, the product of the Judge's rape of his wife, lives his first seven years under his mother's wing. Joan Ocean, an alcoholic artist, keeps her third child and only son by her side through wonderfully fast drives in her convertible, at her studio, and at home with the Judge and Scotty's two older sisters. The boy's world is smashed, however, shortly after second grade begins, when his mother leaves and the Judge assumes the role of parent-in-residence. Hedges, author of What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (Pocket, 1994), renders another pitch-perfect character portrait, realizing a time (1969) and place (a Midwestern middle-class suburb) with dimensionality that encourages readers to believe they are inside Scotty's brain and heart. The subplot of the adult Oceans' growth underscores the boy's own apprehension about his place in the worlds of family, school, and community. High school readers who have themselves kept the memory of a particularly vital age or year in childhood will sympathize with Scotty's plight: nobody stays seven forever. Reading his story will give these teens the opportunity for epiphany; by comparing this boy's state of mind to their own they can peek at the possibility that change happens always, not just in youth. They, better than Scotty, have learned that after 7 (and probably after 17), the character of self gets to be part of lots more stories.-Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA
Joan, the mother in Peter Hedges' second novel, An Ocean in Iowa, is onstage for only part of the book but she hovers over every page. She's that new icon: the woman who landed in suburbia by mistake. She's an artist, a dedicated smoker and the shelter, the best friend, the nonconformist inspiration in the life of her 7-year-old son, Scotty, the novel's hero. She's also an alcoholic, but it's a measure of what's good about this novel that Hedges doesn't present her drinking as some scarring trauma, some trigger for abuse. Scotty simply accepts it, as most kids accept what happens around them, so that we experience it as he does, as not that big a deal.

That's probably the most unconventional thing about An Ocean in Iowa (the title comes from Scotty's last name, Ocean), which follows Scotty through his seventh year -- 1969 -- after Joan moves out, enrolls in college and takes an apartment 90 miles away from Scotty and his two older sisters. An Ocean in Iowa doesn't have the unsettling quality that went bone-deep in Roddy Doyle's "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha." Hedges (the author of What's Eating Gilbert Grape) always makes it clear who's on the side of the unconventional angels and who's on the side of the conformists -- like Scotty's father, "the Judge," who we can see is doing his best to be both parents to his children, but who remains too distant to ever engage our sympathies. After Scotty and Joan, Hedges' most successful characterization is Scotty's elementary-school teacher. She's instantly recognizable, the sort of woman who, after years of teaching, still greets each new class with enthusiasm, is firm and encouraging in equal measure and can still make her students think that learning is the thing that will usher them into the ranks of the big kids.

Finally, though, none of the novel's limitations do much to diminish its emotional satisfactions. Hedges lets us understand Scotty (who's something of an enigma to others) without ever resorting to explaining him. He writes straightforward, uncluttered prose that's sensitive without being fussy. He doesn't make childhood falsely poetic or falsely tragic. I don't think you need to have had a childhood like Scotty's (I didn't) to feel that his fears and fantasies and suppositions remind you of what it was like to be 7. Recapturing part of your emotional past isn't a bad gift for a modest novel to give its readers. -- Salon

Jen Nessel
Hedges has the ability to climb into a child's mind and simply look around. He isn't patronizing about what he sees there, and he doesn't burden his characters with more insight than is appropriate. -- Jen Nessel, New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
In his carefully understated way, Hedges follows up What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1991) with a boy's tale of quiet desperation when his artist mother suddenly abandons him and his sisters to find herself. Joan Ocean didn't plan to leave her family in West Glen, Iowa, in 1969; but after her latest show of nude self-portraits met with a chilly reception, it just happened that way. Scotty, her seven-year-old youngster, doesn't quite know how it will all turn out, but he's certain that it's all his fault. He turns inward but still does his share of the chores, helping his sister with laundry, and his father the Judge with dinner and the dishes. Joan, who has begun drinking heavily, returns for Christmas, raising everyone's hopes, but she makes it clear that she doesn't want to live with the family anymore, and Scotty finds himself truly at sea. He looks for a substitute for Joan in the pretty mother of a second-grade classmate, but when he crawls under the covers with her during a sleepover, that possibility is eliminated. He acts up in class, wearing for days a football helmet he received for Christmas, runs amok through school when he realizes a visiting artist has lied to them about the color of mountains; and, finally, when Joan is arrested for drunk driving, reduces a vulnerable, trusting classmate to tears by telling her that his mother is going to be executed. None of this brings Joan back, of course, so Scotty decides he's going to stay seven forever, and on the eve of his next birthday he makes use of a grenade, which a neighbor, an ex-soldier, brought back from Vietnam, to keep his pledge. The child's-eye view is finely done, but its limitations are also apparent, as Scotty'sworld, family, and friends seem at critical moments to be not just imperfect but insubstantial. (Author tour)

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Read an Excerpt

What Scotty Said
When he was four or thereabouts, Scotty Ocean liked to stand on the piano bench while his mother, a painter of abstracts, played the only song she knew.
She practiced it daily, her eyes closed, a Salem cigarette burning in the nearby ashtray.
For Scotty there was no place better to be than at her side, where he might tug at her blouse or whisper in her ear or pound the black keys with his fists. But it hardly mattered what he did because when Joan Ocean played her song, everything — even Scotty — disappeared.
One day he said something that brought her to a stop.
She made him say it again. This time she watched closely as his pink lips shaped the sounds. She would never forget it. Later it would haunt her: his eyes, his voice, and the words, spoken simply...
"Seven is going to be my year."
Copyright © 1998 by Peter Hedges

Meet the Author

Peter Hedges, the author of What's Eating Gilbert Grape, grew up in West Des Moines, Iowa. He now lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and two children.

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An Ocean in Iowa 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
When I first started it. It broke my heart, made me laugh, and made me grateful...
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am a huge fan of Hedges' work, but i would have to say that Scotty Ocean is my favorite. He is the most lovable rebell I have ever known! Enthusiastic about being 7 years old, (and remaining 7 forever), Scotty struggles to keep the rest of his life as perfect as his age. When his mom, a failing artist, abandons the family he goes through a phase of witty rebellion. His mishaps will have you laughing along, but saddened as well, when you consider his circumstances. Hedges guides his readers through rural 1969 family life through the awesomely mature eyes of a child learning about the facts of life. The writing is very simple, yet meaningful. Much like 'Gilbert Grape', the characters are quite unforgettable. An enjoyable read for all ages.