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An Ocean in Iowa

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Overview

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 ...

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An Ocean in Iowa

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Overview

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.

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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 novel...is 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
Taylor
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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684859705
  • Publisher: Touchstone
  • Publication date: 4/28/1999
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 502,092
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.08 (h) x 0.62 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Hedges

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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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

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Table of Contents

Table of Contents
What Scotty Said
Almost Heaven
Look at Scotty Grow
A Good Boy
Christmas
Other Mothers
The Wrong Crowd
What Was Learned

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First Chapter

Almost Heaven

(I)

In the summer of 1969, if you had asked the then six-year-old Scotty Ocean what a judge actually did, he couldn't have told you -- and why his parents never hugged or kissed, he would have been at a loss -- and why his sisters kept whispering, giggling about girl matters, he would've had no idea. Scotty Ocean was not in possession of all the facts.

But he knew some things. He knew where he came from. He knew his mother had made him. In her art studio. The same way she made paintings and sculptures.

"You made me, right?"

Joan always nodded a gentle yes.

"But just you."

Joan would try to include the Judge but Scotty would cover his ears and scrunch his face, insisting -- "Only you made me."

Soon Joan stopped trying to tell him otherwise.

For Scotty, the particulars always changed. When his mother experimented with sculpting marble, he was convinced that he, too, had been chiseled, and the unused parts of him had fallen to the floor like the slivers and chunks in the corner of Joan's studio. When she worked at her pottery wheel, he watched the way she would wet her fingers and stick a thumb in the spinning lump of clay -- suddenly a shape. He would shout over the blaring radio, "This is how you made me."

Joan didn't bother to correct him. Scotty's beliefs were creative and she was the featured player in his wanderings -- this charmed her, and why, she thought, why, as she popped open the next can of beer, why tell him the facts. He had his whole life to live with the facts.


(2)

The Judge had been standing at the top of the stairs, calling down to his wife for some time. "Joan," he said. "Come here."felt it deep inside.

She had conceived.

When the Judge rounded the corner with his nightly bowl full, his girls leapt toward him, their little hands reaching up for the corn. With a girl on either side, he settled into the sofa. He lifted up the saltshaker. "Let me," the girls squealed. As each daughter took their turn, Joan Ocean started to cry.


* * *

Her first pregnancies had been remarkable experiences. In 1957, after reading the book Childbirth Without Fear, Joan informed her obstetrician, Dr. Charles Vernon, exactly how she intended her baby to be born. Dr. Vernon argued with her. He believed Joan was making a mistake. But in thirty years of delivering babies, he'd rarely met a woman so determined.

When it came time, Joan requested three pillows and refused to lie down and submit to the common medical practices of the day. With proper breathing and an unshakable belief that childbirth couldn't hurt too much, that for millions of years women had been giving birth, and that she was just another, a link in a long line, she gave birth to Claire the "natural" way in an eleven-hour period. Nurses who had been skeptical looked at her with a much deserved respect.

"Your wife is unusual," Dr. Vernon later told the Judge.

Maggie's birth proved even easier, done in eight and a half hours, and it confirmed Joan's thought that there was nothing nicer than giving birth.

But Scotty's labor would be different.

Joan, all sweaty and exhausted, shouted and moaned -- endless contractions -- she was to endure hours of pain.

"The little brat doesn't want to come out."

Dr. Vernon said, "You know, Joan, this doesn't have to hurt so much."

She shook her head, determined, h er hands clenching the steel sides of her hospital bed.

"You know we can kill the pain...."

"No!"

Joan held out. She had gone into labor on July 10, 1962, and Scotty was delivered just after midnight on the twelfth. Twenty-nine hours -- it was as if Scotty didn't want to be born.

Perhaps he knew he wasn't welcome, Joan told herself. Between contractions she vowed to work extra hard to like her child. Fortunately her guilt for wanting a miscarriage, her self-hate for wishing this baby had never existed, evaporated the first moment Scotty was set on her chest and went for her breast and missed.

"He'll learn," she told the Judge, who wiped her sweaty face with his handkerchief.

"Of course," he replied.

On the drive home from the hospital, the Judge remarked, "The doctor said you have an unbelievably high tolerance for pain."

The Judge turned onto their street.

"I thought you should know that's what he said. Very few people could take what you withstood. He was impressed."

Joan forced a smile for her husband. She knew he was proud of how she delivered.

The girls stood with Joan's parents on the porch. A sign hung on the garage door, painted in bright red and blue: WE'VE GOT A BROTHER. WELCOME HOME, SCOTT.

Later that afternoon, the Judge painted on a Y, explaining to the girls who watched, "Your grandfather, my father, was also named Scott. So we'll call your brother Scotty. Scotteee." Then the Judge went back inside, and the girls practiced saying their little brother's name.

Joan received visitors for most of that afternoon. Neighbors and friends stopped over. The Judge's secretary came with balloons. All guests were served pink lemonade and cookies compliments of Joan's parents.

While the Judge told the entire birth experience from his perspective (which consisted of his pacing the halls and napping in the waiting room), Joan sat at the kitchen table. The noise of children playing and the Judge talking in the living room blurred for her, and she looked down at her boy asleep in her arms, his crooked face, tiny eyes, his lips and nose so little.

In the living room, the consensus among the guests was that Scotty's looks favored his father, but the Judge was quick to disagree: "He doesn't look a thing like me. He looks like an hors d'oeuvre."

Hearing this, Joan thought the following, and pledged it to herself, as both prayer and promise: You will be loved, Scotty Ocean.

And while the guests laughed at the Judge's remark, Joan leaned over and softly whispered to her newborn son, "You will be loved."


(3)

On his last day as six, Scotty tagged along with his mother as she ran an afternoon of errands.

At Kmart, he stuck his hand in the back pocket of her blue jeans and gripped tight. They came to a stop at the party supply section and picked out paper plates, party hats, and noisemakers.

At the cash register, while his mom paid with a personal check, Scotty wandered off, and Joan was forced to look for him, checking Toys, Pets, and Sporting Goods. When she finally found him in Appliances, he was standing, mouth open in awe, staring at images of astronauts practicing weightlessness at their training facility. Sixteen television screens, different sizes with various hues and tints, but the same image -- these were the astronauts of Apollo 11.

"Scotty?"

Scotty didn't answer. He imagined he was bouncing around in the aisles of Km art, floating like the astronauts in their simulation tank.

"Scotty?"

He turned to his mother and waved in slow motion.

"Let's go," Joan said.


At Kenny Rayburn's, where Scotty got his hair cut monthly, Joan sat outside in front of the twirling candy stripe that spun forever upward. Inside, Kenny Rayburn used an electric razor to shave the back of Scotty's head. Using scissors he trimmed Scotty's bangs.


In the parking lot of Safeway, Scotty finished off a bottle of 7-UP and then asked for a sip of his mother's beer. They talked about Buzz Aldrin.

At Magill's Bakery, Scotty begged his mother to put the top down on her yellow convertible, and Joan couldn't deny him. She unlatched the car top. She nodded to Scotty, who pushed the button that started it all moving. The black top rose up, folded back into itself, and Scotty could see the sky, which was gray, bruised with rain clouds.

She told him to wait right there. He stood up inside the car. She watched as he flailed his arms and shook his head.

"You know what I'm doing?"

"No, I don't." A palsy, Joan wanted to say. Something spastic.

It was the beginnings of a dance.

"Seven," he said. "I'm seven."

"You're still six," Joan reminded him. Then she walked quickly to the store. The sound of thunder came from above. It would rain in minutes. Before going into the bakery, she turned to check on him. Scotty had continued his dance alone.


Joan gasped. Any guilt for not baking her own cake disappeared the minute she saw the detailed frosting design. She turned to the baker Jerry Magill and exclaimed, "It's wonderful!"

Using gray dye in the frosting, Jerry had created the surface of the moon. Frosting craters; a miniature lunar module built out of toothpicks; an astronaut figurine and seven candles with small American flags taped to the sides.

"It's a work of art," she said.

Jerry smiled. He'd been so pleased with the cake that earlier he'd photographed it for his scrapbook.

"It's a crime to eat it," Joan said. "This cake could be framed."

"That's quite a compliment coming from you."

Joan Ocean began painting the year Scotty was born, working in a rented studio behind a toy store and an Italian restaurant in Windsor Heights, an adjoining suburb. Her work had a small following, and Jerry Magill and his wife were two of her most loyal supporters.

"I want it to be a surprise," Joan said.

So Jerry Magill carefully set the moon cake in a box, taped it shut, then wrapped it in a white sack.

On the drive home, the cake box sat in Scotty's lap. He wanted to open it but he knew better than to ask. He had to wait.

Scotty put his hand on the stick shift so that when Joan needed to change gears, her hand would wrap around his and they would shift together.

In the distance, east of town, lightning flashed.

"Let's go down Buffalo Road!" Scotty shouted.

Buffalo Road was an unpaved back road that had as its highlight a bump. Whenever Joan sped over the bump at full speed, Scotty would lift off his seat several inches.

"Go fast, Mom."

"Not today."

"Pretty please," Scotty begged. He knew she was the only mother who would speed over the bump on Buffalo Road.

"Honey," Joan said, "I have to take it slow."

"No!" he demanded. "Take it fast!"

Joan simply pointed to the cake box resting on Scotty's lap, the cake box that covered up two thirds of her boy.

Lightning flashed closer and a rumble of thunder followed.

Scotty looked down. "Let's go slow," he said.

As Joan Ocean drove slowly, winding and curving as the road dictated, Scotty studied the cake box. He wanted to open it, to prove what he suspected to be true. But he needed no proof, for he knew from his mother's expression when she came outside, he knew from the triumphant manner in which she lit her cigarette, he knew that in his lap was the cake of his dreams.


(4)

"I don't remember," Maggie Ocean said, after biting into a corn muffin. "Uhm. Much about. Seven was the year I got to..."

"Maggie, chew before speaking," the Judge said.

"Okay, uhm..."

"Swallow."

They waited for Maggie.

At ten, her blond hair was shoulder length; her bangs were cut like Scotty's, a wedge across the forehead. She had a few large freckles. Tall for her age, skinny, narrow shoulders, she was all bone and eyes.

Finished swallowing, Maggie said, "Okay! Seven was good, I think? I think it was good?"

"Is it a question, Maggie?"

"No, Daddy, it was good."

The Judge turned to Claire, who wiped her mouth with a napkin before speaking. "Seven was a year of tremendous change. The Vietnam War accelerated, Martin Luther King gave the 'I have a dream' speech -- "

Joan interrupted, "Honey, that was 1966."

"Yes, but Maggie was seven for much of 1966. I was speaking for Maggie."

"That's correct," the Judge said.

"I thought you meant you were seven..."

Claire smiled at her mother. "No, it would have been 1963 for me. Two weeks after Kennedy's assassination. How could I forget that?"

"I stand corrected," Joan said. "But let Maggie speak for Maggie, and you speak for yourself."

Without missing a beat, Claire said, "Seven was a great year for me. Boys weren't an issue, they were still smaller than the girls, and it was the year I began to read real books. So I remember liking seven."

Scotty stared at Claire, who at twelve looked like her mother. She wore her hair in the same style, straight, bangs behind the ears, and her mouth had the same thick lips.

"Uhm, you know what I think?" Maggie said. "I think..." She paused as she struggled for the right words.

Tired of waiting for Maggie to finish her thought, Scotty clinked his glass with his salad fork. His family turned to him as he shouted, "Me. Me, me, me!"

And it was then that the Scotty stories began.

The Judge told about a much younger Scotty trying to revive the dead rabbit. Claire remembered when on his fourth birthday Scotty tried to direct the traffic on Ashworth Road using a plastic police whistle. Joan recounted the time Scotty came home from kindergarten, packed a suitcase, and ran away. Later, when he was returned home, Joan opened the suitcase to find one side filled with his favorite toys. On the other side -- and this was the detail that got them all to laughing -- he'd packed only one thing: a large photograph of himself.


(5)

Their favorite Scotty story had taken place the previous February, when Scotty, a first grader, stepped outside during a sleet storm. His two sisters watched from the living room picture window. Bundled up in his winter jacket, a tasseled stocking cap, and his wool mittens, Scotty leaned over and licked the mailbox. His wet tongue fused with the cold metal. He could not move.

Claire and Maggie knew right away they hadn't thought it through, for they had dared hi m, and if he didn't get loose before their parents returned home, they would be blamed.

In moments the sisters were outside. Claire tried to uproot the mailbox. As she pulled at the wooden base, grunting and sputtering, she explained her thinking: "If we can get the box inside, his tongue will thaw." But even with Maggie helping, the mailbox was not to be moved. The previous summer the mailbox base had been set in concrete.

While the girls shouted frantically, Scotty struggled to be understood. "It's cold" is what he tried to say. But with his tongue stuck, it sounded like "ooosss koohhhd."

Joan and the Judge had gone to a Sunday brunch with friends. They would be home shortly, in good spirits probably, unless of course they saw their boy frozen to the mailbox.

So Claire and Maggie had no choice. They each grabbed a shoulder and hooked under an elbow and yanked suddenly without warning. Scotty brought his hands quickly to his mouth. All three stood quietly staring at the miniature pink circle of flesh still stuck on the mailbox.

"It looks like a little pizza," said Maggie without thinking.

As Scotty's eyes filled and his skin flushed bright red, he began to jump about in the slush. He fell on his knees in a remaining patch of snow.

Later, while wrapped in blankets, Scotty lay on the kitchen floor, his hand crammed in his mouth squeezing the tongue. He breathed in short, quick spurts, and didn't move. A steady stream of tears ran down his face.

Claire checked the cabinet that contained medicines and Band-Aids. She removed a medicine bottle and said, "Mom uses this on cuts."

Maggie said, "Let's try it."

So they propped Scotty up.

Claire opened the medicine called tinct ure of Merthiolate. It came in a dropper. Its smell brought with it the memory of every bike crash and knee scrape. It would leave an orange stain but it would sterilize. And Claire thought it was important to sterilize.

But when she dropped the Merthiolate onto Scotty's outstretched tongue, he jerked back, stood up, and began to slap at his mouth. He ran around the house. His face turned purple and he finally dropped to the floor and thrashed about wildly.

As Maggie begged him to calm down -- "PLEASE, PLEASE" -- Claire knew she had no choice. She dialed the operator.


When the Judge turned his Dodge Dart at the bottom of the street, he was the first to see the flashing lights. Then Joan noticed and knew immediately who was hurt. "Scotty," she said.

Two paramedics were loading him into the ambulance as the Ocean car pulled into the driveway. Claire and Maggie began to cry the minute they saw the car. The girls tried to explain, they apologized, in desperation they lied and said it was Scotty's idea; Claire finished the explanation by recalling a TV show where the kid didn't get stuck. Even TV was to blame.

The Judge told everyone to calm down. "The body knows how to heal," he said. "The body knows best and we've got to get out of its way."

Joan rode in the ambulance while the Judge stayed home. She kept her eyes on Scotty, who stared back at her. The ambulance worker had wrapped Scotty's tongue with gauze. Joan said sweetly, "This is one time you can stick it out and not get in trouble."


Later that day, after dressing in a parka and matching scarf, the Judge stepped outside. It was time for him to do his part. Since the incident, the weather hadn't cooperated. The sleet t urned to a hard falling snow that had begun to blanket car windshields and sidewalks and the street. The Judge found the bad weather fitting. It felt Shakespearean, Greek.

Brushing away the accumulated snow with his gloved hand, the Judge stared at the mailbox, studying for a moment the sliver of Scotty's tongue. Then he prayed without kneeling (for his knees would get wet), but he prayed all the same: Please make this the deepest pain my boy will ever feel.

Back inside the house, the Judge boiled water. Using his gloves as potholders, he carried the pan out the front door and poured the hot water over the mailbox. Steam rose. He waited a moment and then using the pancake spatula, he scraped the mailbox clean.

The girls had gone to their rooms where they waited for news of their brother.

At the hospital, Scotty lay on a stretcher. As an overhead light blurred his eyesight, as a nurse with several tiny black hairs on her chin poked around in his mouth, as the intercom called for a certain doctor to go to a certain room and another doctor to go to another room, Scotty made a gesture that no one saw. He wanted his mother.

Joan had gone to the pay phone outside of the emergency room. Digging around the bottom of her purse, she found a nickel, put it in the coin slot, and dialed.

"Judge Ocean speaking."

Joan said, her voice shaky, "The doctors want to keep Scotty a little longer. It's more procedural than anything."

"Oh," the Judge said. It was silent on the other end. Neither of them knew what to say. Then the Judge spoke: "I disposed of the tongue."

There was another uncomfortable silence. Then Joan said, "Would you like to say something to Scotty?"

The Judge said, "No." H e thought it was better for Scotty to rest. But before hanging up, the Judge said, "Tell him Bonanza is on tonight."

The Judge wrote the girls' orders down on a napkin and went to McDonald's. He didn't cook, and the girls loved McDonald's, and it would be his way to help begin the healing. For in the Ocean household, when one child hurt, everyone suffered in their own way.

It was during Bonanza, however, that the Judge felt a rush of regret. After all, Scotty's tongue had been torn up, not his ears -- Scotty could hear. The Judge, angry at himself, wished he had said something to Scotty.

During a commercial he dialed the hospital and the operator put the call through to Scotty's room.

"Let me talk to Scotty."

"You can't," Joan said.

"Please let me talk to him."

"He's asleep now."

"Oh," the Judge said. "Damn." The Judge paused. "When Scotty wakes up, tell him Bonanza wasn't much this week. Tell him he didn't miss a thing."

After hanging up, the Judge hurried back to the television. It was the best Bonanza episode he could remember -- the best one in years.


When word spread the following day at Clover Hills Elementary, a pack of boys -- third and fourth graders mainly -- made a pilgrimage after school. They sent Scotty's best friends, Dan Burkhett and Jimmy Lamson, ahead. The boys reported back that the mailbox had no tongue on it. This news noted, the gang of boys scattered and headed to their respective homes, disappointed.


Even though his doctor said he could resume talking immediately, Scotty said nothing for days. The only time he opened his mouth was to insert the straw used to drink his vitamin milk shakes. For the time being all his meals were to be liquid.

Scotty's first grade teacher, Mrs. Marilyn Sands, felt sorry for Scotty and only asked him yes or no questions. And even though he frequently gave the wrong answer, he was at least nodding and shaking -- he was trying.

His classmates left him alone. They knew he had suffered in unthinkable ways, and that one day they, too, might lose a portion of their tongue on a mailbox.

That Wednesday, however, Mary Beth Swift came to school with her arm in a sling. She had broken her wrist the day before while roller-skating. Sympathies quickly switched to Mary Beth, who offered her classmates a choice of different-colored markers with which to sign her plaster cast.

On Thursday morning when Joan woke Scotty, he made a face like he didn't feel well. "Then you'd better stay home," she said.

She worked for his trust. Gaining it, she thought, he would confide in her -- he would eventually speak. So she took him on secret trips. They drove all over West Glen and Windsor Heights playing the car radio loud. They drove to the liquor store and bought extra six-packs of beer. She hid them in the basement in suitcases.

That Thursday night Scotty sat silently at dinner, slurping at his liquid diet. The girls hated the constant attention he was receiving. Any kindness showed Scotty felt like a slap at them, punishment for daring him to lick the mailbox, punishment for being beautiful and smart and clever and popular. As the girls battled for attention, they began talking faster at dinner, fabricating stories. The meal became chaos.

The Judge said dinner was over and that the next night there would be a constructive discussion about the future. He asked his children to think abo ut what they wanted to be when they grew up. He excused the girls, who began to clear the table.

That Friday, Scotty went with his mother to her studio. He watched her squeeze out the oil paints. He liked watching her mix colors, the big thick globs of paint stirred into every color imaginable. Joan set him up with a miniature easel and several containers of finger paints. When she finished a painting, Scotty hurried to finish one, too. They hung their work side by side. She explained why his paintings were brilliant. "The color," she would say. "The feeling underneath."

That afternoon, while Joan talked on the phone, Scotty put his nose up to her palette of oil paints and inhaled deeply. He loved the smell so he breathed in several times fast. He grew dizzy. He danced a bit. He thought sentences but said nothing. This was the closest he'd come to saying words.

At dinner the Judge asked his children the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Maggie said a model. Claire had many goals, numerous interests. Joan said it would take three lifetimes to do all that Claire wanted.

Then the Judge spoke again: "And you know what?"

"What?" Claire and Maggie said.

"You," he said, fighting a smile, "Can. Be. Anything." He smiled, shouted, "ANYTHING!" and then turned to Scotty.

"Young man, what do you want to be when you grow up?"

Scotty didn't answer.

The Judge told him to answer.

Scotty didn't move.

"Don't be shy. Tell me what you want to be."

He put his arm around Scotty and pulled him close. Joan started to object. The Judge said, "Shhhh."

Scotty squirmed in an effort to get away. But the Judge was strong. There was no escape. The more Scotty tried to wiggle free, the more his sisters laughed.

"You can be anything you want to be," the Judge said. "Imagine that. You can be anything."

"Yeah," the girls said.

The Judge said, "You just have to be something."

Scotty began to hold his breath.

Joan whispered, "Walter."

The Judge waved his hand for her to be quiet. "You don't want to grow up, Scotty, is that it? You don't have dreams?"

Scotty had begun to turn blue.

Sensing that this was nowhere near working, the Judge patted Scotty on the top of the head, grinned for the family, excused the girls to start clearing the table, and sent Scotty to his room.

Everyone did as the Judge said, except for Scotty, who sat motionless.

"You don't have to talk," the Judge said, annoyed. "But you have to go to your room."

Scotty began to move his mouth. No one could hear him, not even the Judge, who was spooning the last of the mashed potatoes onto his plate.

"Look," Maggie said. "Scotty's trying to talk."

Scotty's mouth moved more.

Joan leaned over and listened. Scotty's voice was a whisper.

Joan said, "Something about heaven?"

Scotty shook his head.

The Judge interrupted, "Heaven comes after you die. What do you want to do before that?"

"No," Scotty said just loud enough for everyone to hear. "Seven. I want to be seven."


(6)

Even now, after six months, they loved to retell the story. Claire did an imitation of Scotty announcing "I want to be seven!" which caught Maggie off guard. A stream of orange Hi-C shot out Maggie's nose and everyone started laughing. The Judge almost fell out of his chair. Joan wiped at her eyes and begged, "Stop, please."

When everyone caught their breath, the Ju dge raised his glass and said, "So, Scotty, tomorrow you finally get what you want."

Scotty smiled, revealing his uneven teeth.

"Let's drink to that, what do you say?"

They all lifted their glasses -- clink.


That night Joan used a remaining shard of soap to lather her hands.

"Let it go, Mom," Scotty said.

She let the soap drop. Scotty searched the bottom of the tub. Finding it near the drain, he raised his arms into the air, holding the soap sliver like a trophy.

"Wash me," he said.

With her hands appropriately lathered, Joan began to soap Scotty's back.

"Starting tomorrow, Mom, I won't need this anymore."

"No?"

"No," Scotty said, "I'll do it by myself."

"Oh, you will, will you?"

"You'll see. I'll do most things by myself."

She soaped his pale arms and chest. Using her fingernails, she scratched lightly over his shoulders, and she considered that one day these boy-shoulders would be broad. Soon his sweet face would grow hair, his voice would drop, and his hands would get rough and callused. How, she thought, how do I keep you, Scotty, just the way you are?


But there was one habit of Scotty's that Joan wanted to stop. In the middle of most nights, he found his way to his parents' bed and climbed in between them. The Judge had discussed putting a lock on the door. But Joan felt there must be a gentler way.

So that night she asked him as she tucked him in, "Do you know the history of this bed?"

Scotty shook his head.

"When I was your age, it was mine."

"You weren't my age."

"Yes, of course I was." She combed back his wet bangs with her fingers and smiled. "And this was my bed."

"But now it's mine."

"No, it's my bed, Scotty. I'm l oaning it to you."

Scotty said nothing.

How could she tell him that he wasn't wanted anymore in their bed?

She kissed his lips, click went the light, and with her hand on the doorknob, and moments before all would be dark, she said, "Scotty?"

"Yes, Mom?"

"Will you do me a favor?"

He nodded, for he would do any favor, anything, for her.

"You will?"

"I'll do you a favor," he said.

"Will you take care of this bed."

"Yes."

Joan said, "Will you keep it warm for me?"

Copyright © 1998 by Peter Hedges

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Interviews & Essays

Before the live bn.com chat, Peter Hedges agreed to answer some of our questions:

Q: What is it about Iowa that differentiates it from other midwestern states? What do you find unique about the Hawkeye State?

A: We don't have a professional sports team (although we do have minor league baseball), there is no major body of water, and all the major cities near us are in different states. There is a great awareness of the enormity of what is beyond us, and there is always an awareness, a certain perspective, because everything on every other side is bigger.

Q: Scotty Ocean is a very unusual seven-year-old. How autobiographical would you say his character is? Also, what would you consider the inspiration behind many of the hilarious situations that Scotty and his classmates face in An Ocean in Iowa?

A: In spirit it is autobiographical, but in fact most of it is fiction. Once I had a handle on who Scotty was and how he thought, I was able to find out all kinds of circumstances that would test him in school.

Q: Unlike many authors, you wrote the screenplay adaptation of your first novel, What's Eating Gilbert Grape. Were you satisfied with the film? How much influence and weight did you have in the final movie?

A: I love the film and I had quite a bit of influence, in that I was on the set rewriting and present throughout the filming. It is a movie, so it is a collaborative creation, but I liked that it was collaborative. And when you get to collaborate with Lasse Hallström, Johnny Depp, and Leonardo DiCaprio, you are a blessed writer.

Q: What is it about suburban family life in the late 1960s that makes it so interesting to write about?

A: I don't know. I think maybe because there is a seismic shift beginning to happen in families in 1969. Most families in Iowa were two-parent families, Vietnam was raging, but Watergate had not devastated the nation's confidence in our leaders. Surprisingly, it was a simpler time. There was less technology and less diversions. Maybe that was some of it. I was Scotty's age during those dates. Actually, in truth, with Scotty's mother leaving, it made sense, because it was an uncommon occurrence, having a mother leave a family.

Q: Have you read anything lately that you would strongly recommend?

A: I would say Watermark by Joseph Brodsky. I recently reread The Age of Missing Information by Bill McKibben. I am a big fan of The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats, and I am currently reading Kate Phillips's White Rabbit, which I love.

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Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide

Discussion Points

  1. An Ocean in Iowa is a striking title because of its incongruity. What is the title conveying about Scotty's feeling about his place in the universe and his ability to fit into his environment?
  2. The father in this story is strikingly complex, eliciting anger in some scenes, and tremendous sympathy in others. In the end, what do you make of him? Do you feel sympathetic towards his situation? Or, do you feel that he is in a situation of his own creation, and somewhat deserving of his misery? Is he really miserable, or has he come to terms with his life by the book's close? How do you interpret his identification as the Judge, rather than father or Walter, through most of the book? Does this say something about his character or about the primacy of his professional role over his familial role?
  3. The mother is a major character despite the fact that she appears in relatively few scenes; she is ever present even in absence. What do you make of her, on how is your feeling limited by her absence? Like the Judge, she is a complex character. Do you feel sympathetic for her, or do you blame her for the problems she has wrought on herself and her family? Is she, in some ways, a victim to her time? How would her life have been different had this been the 80s? 90s? How would it have been the same?
  4. This book is set in 1969, just as the women's liberation movement is beginning. How would this story be different for Scotty if it were set in 1989? 1999? How would it be the same? Would Scotty have had an easier time if he wasn't the only child who lived with one parent — or would it make little difference?
  5. How would you describe Scotty's relationships with his two older sisters. What differences do you see in Maggie and Claire's relationships with the Judge and Joan vs. Scotty's? Does Claire take on her mother's role in a way when Joan moves away? Is growing up just as hard for Scotty's siblings?
  6. The book is filled with icons and memorabilia from the late 60's/early 70's (e.g. Apollo 11, shaving commercials, Tang, Twister). What songs, games and tv shows remind you of your childhood? Where were you when Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon?
  7. Scotty wants to stop his age at 7. The Judge never wanted to turn 40. Is there an age you ever dreamed you could stop at? Why?
  8. Scotty threatens to run away more than once in the novel. He packs his suitcase with toys and a photo of himself before the book begins and runs away a few more times in the course of the novel. What did you think when Joan disappears after the exhibit of her nude photos? Did this remind you of Scotty (or visa versa)? Why is communication so difficult for the Ocean family? What is the Judge's role in all this?
  9. Miss Jude, the "artist" who comes to visit Scotty's class has a very limited view of art. Can you recall a time for you that an attempt at self-expression was misunderstood by an adult, particularly an adult who seems in a position to know? What was your feeling when you discovered that Miss Jude had destroyed Scotty's painting?
  10. Scotty's teacher, Mrs. Boyden, seems like another in a series of adults who misunderstands children in general and Scotty in particular. And yet, her reaction to Miss Jude's destruction of Scotty's painting is interesting. How did you feel about Mrs. Boyden before, and how did you feel about her after her silent vow to Miss Jude that "never again will you teach my class"?

A Note to Readers from Peter Hedges

In my experience, it takes a collision of unlikely moments, and sometimes even a happy accident, in order to have the first inspirations for a novel. An Ocean in Iowa began in a surprising manner. During the summer of 1991, my sister and I had a long distance phone conversation where we discussed my upcoming birthday. She remembered that when I turned eight, I had cried for days, even refusing to come downstairs for my party. (Of this, I have no memory.) Apparently, I was inconsolable, for seven was my favorite number, and I had wanted to remain seven forever. Soon after, I visited my father in Texas. One hot afternoon, I sought refuge in an air-conditioned drug store where I saw a stack of Big Chief notebooks. Now, Big Chief notebooks were, in my formative years, the only notebooks I ever wrote in. Hit with a wave of nostalgia, I bought the entire stack. I immediately began to write in the Big Chief notebooks about a boy who believes Seven is going to be his year.

I wrote and wrote and wrote, filling numerous notebooks.

The act of writing on paper identical to the kind of paper I had learned penmanship on affected what I wrote. The fact that I was writing by hand, and not typing (which is my usual way of writing), had an enormous impact on the style of writing. The prose was simple, clear, considered.

Soon I had a name for my hero. Scotty Ocean. Often finding the name of a character is a key step in being able to picture them, to understand them. Scotty Ocean was the name of a boy I wanted to know. I particularly loved the last name of Ocean. Oceans are vast, deep, awe-inspiring. Could a seven-year-old boy be all of that and more?

I worked on this novel, ironically, for seven years. I worried it was taking too long. Then one day I stumbled on a letter Carson McCuller's had written her husband while she was writing Member of The Wedding. I'm paraphrasing, but the spirit of what she wrote was this: "I've rewritten certain sections twenty or thirty times. One word or image out of place, and the whole work unravels. It's a small, delicate story, it must be done beautifully — otherwise, there isn't much use for it."

This gave me the encouragement to be patient, to not publish the book until it was ready.

My private hope in writing An Ocean in Iowa was that it would make me a better, more empathetic parent. If I could envision the mind of a child, and inhabit the fears and loves of Scotty Ocean, then maybe I'd be more understanding of my children — their fragility and their resilience.

I'm often asked if the book if Scotty Ocean and I are the same person. The answer is "No." There are or three or four autobiographical moments in the novel. But ultimately it's a work of fiction. Anyway, I was born on July 6, 1962. Scotty was born on July 12th. I did not know him growing up, but I'd like to think that if I had, we'd have been best friends.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 1999

    Eight is Not Great for Scotty Ocean

    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.

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