The One-in-a-Million Boy

The One-in-a-Million Boy

4.5 4
by Monica Wood
     
 

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The incandescent story of a 104-year-old woman and the sweet, strange young boy assigned to help her around the house — a friendship that touches each member of the boy’s unmoored family

For years, guitarist Quinn Porter has been on the road, chasing gig after gig, largely absent to his twice-ex-wife Belle and their odd, Guinness

Overview


The incandescent story of a 104-year-old woman and the sweet, strange young boy assigned to help her around the house — a friendship that touches each member of the boy’s unmoored family

For years, guitarist Quinn Porter has been on the road, chasing gig after gig, largely absent to his twice-ex-wife Belle and their odd, Guinness records–obsessed son. When the boy dies suddenly, Quinn seeks forgiveness for his paternal shortcomings by completing the requirements for his son’s unfinished Boy Scout badge.
 
For seven Saturdays, Quinn does yard work for Ona Vitkus, the wily 104-year-old Lithuanian immigrant the boy had visited weekly. Quinn soon discovers that the boy had talked Ona into gunning for the world record for Oldest Licensed Driver — and that’s the least of her secrets. Despite himself, Quinn picks up where the boy left off, forging a friendship with Ona that allows him to know the son he never understood, a boy who was always listening, always learning.
 
The One-in-a-Million Boy is a richly layered novel of hearts broken seemingly beyond repair and then bound by a stunning act of human devotion.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
02/22/2016
Wood never names the 11-year-old boy at the center of her bittersweet new novel; he is referred to as “the boy” from the start. This idiosyncratic and earnest list-making boy without friends dies as strangely—“the first symptom is usually death”—as he lived. His father, an itinerant guitarist named Quinn, decides to finish earning the child’s Boy Scouts badge by doing yard work for the 104-year-old Ona Vitkus. This penance for being an absentee father turns into something even greater as he and his grief-stricken twice-ex-wife take up the boy’s hope for Ona to set a world record as the oldest licensed driver. The author (Any Bitter Thing) reveals the prickly old woman’s life story, beginning in Lithuania, through the boy’s 10-part recorded interview with her; Ona slowly comes to realize what a gift his questions were, while the reader gains understanding into her character. Wood maintains the boy’s unknowability by allowing just one (heartrending) scene from his point of view, which walks a thin line between sweet and saccharine, resulting in a devastating story. Agent: Gail Hochman, Brandt & Hochman Literary. (Apr.)
From the Publisher

"This is a book of heartbreaking beauty. That an 11-year-old boy could bring together so many people of starkly contrasting interests is, in itself, amazing. But that he could bring them together in such a way as to form deep, lasting bonds is truly remarkable. Monica Wood has accomplished a feat of staggering wonder with THE ONE-IN-A-MILLION BOY."—Bookreporter

"Wood dishes out tragedy and charm in equal measure with an intergenerational friendship that retains its beauty despite death...although most readers will find tissues often necessary while navigating the layers of this story, the conclusion will leave them smiling through their tears."—Shelf Awareness

"Wood (Any Bitter Thing, 2005) tells a simultaneously sad and joyous story of a unique 11-year-old boy and the legacy he leaves behind. Known only as “the boy,” he has no friends, and spends his time obsessively compiling mental lists and memorizing countless Guinness world records. As part of his work to earn a Boy Scout badge, the boy does yard work for 104-year-old Ona Vitkus, a Lithuanian immigrant living nearby. They forge a close bond over the course of seven Saturdays, then the boy dies. His mostly absent musician father, Quinn, volunteers to finish the last three of the boy’s weekends. Quinn becomes aware of his son’s and Ona’s plan to get her into a Guinness records book—hopefully, as the oldest licensed driver—and this leads first to a road trip to find Ona’s only living son, now 90, and eventually to a visit to her homeland at age 109. Wood’s portrait of a fractured, grieving family is peopled by endearing characters and should appeal to readers who enjoy the family-centered novels of Jodi Picoult and Kristin Hannah."—Booklist


In The One-in-a-Million Boy, Monica Wood tells a magical, beautifully written story about the healing  power of friendship, music, and unexpected, generation-spanning connections. As emotionally resonant as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, this novel hums with energy, warmth, wisdom, humor, and soul.  —Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train
Christina Baker Kline
"this novel hums with energy, warmth, wisdom, humor, and soul."

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780544617070
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
04/05/2016
Pages:
336
Sales rank:
34,493
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

PART ONE
 
BROLIS (BROTHER) 
This is Miss Ona Vitkus. This is her life story on tape. This is Part One.
 
     Is it on?
     ...
     I can’t answer all these. We’ll be here till doomsday.
     ...
     I’ll answer the first one, but that’s it.
     ...
     I was born in Lithuania. In the year nineteen hundred. I don’t recall the place. I might have, oh, the vaguest recollection of some farm animals. A horse, or some other large beast. White, with spots.
     ...
     Maybe a cow.
     ...
     I have no idea what type of cows live in Lithuania. But I seem to recollect — you know those spotted dairy-type cows you see everywhere?
     ...
     Holsteins. Thank you. Oh, and cherry trees. Lovely cherry trees that looked like soapsuds in the spring. Big, frothy, flowering things.
     ...
     Then there was a long trip, and a ship’s crossing. I remember that in pieces. You’ve got a million questions on that sheet — 
     ...
     Fifty, yes. Fine. I’m just saying, you don’t have to ask them in order.
     ...
      Because the story of your life never starts at the beginning. Don’t they teach you anything in school?
 
 
 
CHAPTER 1 
She was waiting for him — or someone — though he had not phoned ahead. “Where’s the boy?” she called from her porch.

“Couldn’t make it,” he said. “You Mrs. Vitkus?” He’d come to fill her bird feeders and put out her trash and tender sixty minutes to the care of her property. He could do at least that.

She regarded him peevishly, her face a collapsed apple, drained of color but for the small, unsettling, seed-bright eyes. “My birds went hungry,” she said. “I can’t manage the ladder.” Her voice suggested mashed glass.

“Mrs. Ona Vitkus? Forty-two Sibley Ave.?” He checked the address again; he’d taken two buses across town to get here. The green bungalow sat at the woodsy edge of a dead-end street, two blocks from a Lowe’s and a few strides from a hiking trail. Standing in the driveway, Quinn could hear birds and traffic in equal measure.

“It’s ‘Miss,’?” she said haughtily. He caught the faintest trace of an accent. The boy hadn’t mentioned it. She’d probably staggered through Ellis Island with the huddled masses. “He didn’t come last week, either,” she said. “These boys don’t stick to things.”

“I can’t help that,” Quinn said, suddenly wary. He’d been led to expect a pink-cheeked charmer. The house resembled a witch’s hovel, with its dreary flower beds and sharply pitched dormers and shingles the color of thatch.

“They’re supposed to be teaching these boys about obedience. Prepared and kind and obedient .?.?. kind and obedient and .?.?.” She rapped herself lightly on the forehead.

“Clean,” Quinn offered.

The boy was gone: clean gone. But Quinn couldn’t bring himself to say it.

“Clean and reverent,” the woman said. “That’s what they promise. They pledge. I thought this one was the real McCoy.” Another weak echo of accent: something brushy in the consonants, nothing an ordinary ear would pick up.

“I’m his father,” Quinn said.

“I figured.” She shifted inside her quilted parka. She also wore a hat with pompoms, though it was fifty-five degrees, late May, the sun beading down. “Is he sick?”

“No,” Quinn said. “Where’s the birdseed?”

The old woman shivered. Her stockinged legs looked like rake handles jammed into small black shoes. “Out back in the shed,” she said. “Next to the door, unless the boy moved it. He gets his little notions. There’s a ladder there, too. You’re tall. You might not need it.” She sized Quinn up as if considering a run at his clothes.

“If I lowered the feeders,” he suggested, “you could fill them yourself.”

She dug her fists into her hips. “I’m quite put out about this,” she said. All at once she sounded near tears, an unexpected key change that sped things up on Quinn’s end.

“Let me get to it,” he said.

“I’ll be inside.” She aimed a knuckly finger toward her door. “I can supervise just as well through the window.” She spoke with a zeal at odds with her physical frailty, and Quinn doubted for the first time Belle’s word that Ona Vitkus was 104 years old. Since the boy’s death, Belle’s view of reality had gone somewhat gluey. Quinn was awed by her grief, cowed by its power to alter her. He wanted to save her but had no talent for anything more interpersonally complicated than to obey commands as a form of atonement. Which was how he’d wound up here, under orders from his twice-ex-wife, to complete their son’s good deed.

The shed had peeling double doors that opened easily. The hinges looked recently oiled. Inside, he found a stepladder with a broken rung. The place reeked of animal — not dog or cat, something grainier; mice, maybe. Or skinny, balding, fanged rats. Garden implements, seized with rust, hung in a diagonal line on the far wall, points and prongs and blades facing out. He considered the ways the boy could have been hurt on this weekly mission of mercy: ambushed by falling timber, gnawed by vermin — Troop 23’s version of bait and switch.

But the boy had not been hurt. He had been, in his words, “inspired.”

Quinn found the birdseed in a plastic bucket that he recognized. It had once held the five gallons of joint compound with which he’d repaired the walls of Belle’s garage — before their final parting, before she returned his rehearsal space to a repository for paint thinner and plant poisons and spare tires. Inside the bucket Quinn found a king-size scoop, shiny and cherry red, jolly as a prop in a Christmas play. On a nearby shelf he spotted nine more scoops, identical. The boy was a hoarder. He kept things that could not be explained. On the day before the funeral, Belle had opened the door to the boy’s room, instructing Quinn to look around if he wanted, but to remove nothing, touch nothing. So, he counted. Bird nests: 10; copies of Old Yeller: 10; flashlights: 10; piggy banks: 10; Boy Scout manuals: 10. He had Popsicle sticks , acorns, miniature spools of the sort found in ladies’ sewing kits, everything corralled into tidy ten-count groupings. One computer, ten mouse pads. One desk, ten pencil cases. Hoarding, Belle maintained, was a reasonable response to a father whose attentions dribbled like water from a broken spigot. “Figure it out,” she had once told him. “Why would an eleven-year-old child insist on all this backup for the things he needs?”

Because there’s something wrong with him, went Quinn’s silent answer. But on that solemn day they’d observed the room in silence. As Belle preceded Quinn out the door, Quinn palmed the boy’s diary — a single notebook, spiral-bound, five by seven, basic black — and shoved it inside his jacket. Nine others remained, still sealed in shrink-wrap.

As Quinn lugged the birdseed out to Miss Vitkus’s feeders, he pictured the rest of Troop 23 happily do-gooding for more appealing charity cases, the type who knitted pink afghans. The scoutmaster, Ted Ledbetter, a middle-school teacher and single father who claimed to love woodland hikes, had likely foisted Miss Vitkus on the one kid least likely to complain. Now she was tapping on the window, motioning for Quinn to get cracking.

Between the house and a massive birch, Miss Vitkus had strung a thirty-foot clothesline festooned with bird feeders. At six-two, he didn’t require the ladder, though the boy would have, small as he was, elfin and fine-boned. Quinn had also been small at eleven, shooting up the following summer in a growth spurt that left him literally aching and out of clothes. Perhaps the boy would have been tall. A tall hoarder. A tall counter of mysterious things.

Meet the Author


MONICA WOOD is the author of When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine and of the novel Any Bitter Thing, a national bestseller and Book Sense Top Ten pick. Her other fiction includes Ernie's Ark and My Only Story, a finalist for the Kate Chopin Award. Her writing has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Parade, and many other publications. Wood lives in Portland, Maine.

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The One-in-a-Million Boy 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
cloggiedownunder 7 months ago
“He had not loved his son enough. This knowledge lived like a malignancy on his heart. He wanted to believe that the boy, in a future now lost and impossible, would have forgiven him, would have taken their blundering history and found its logic and shaped it into items on a list. And that this – eating cake with Miss Ona Vitkus – would be one of those items” The One-In-A-Million Boy is the fourth novel by American author, Monica Wood. When Quinn Porter turns up at the home of Miss Ona Vitkus on Sibley Avenue in Portland, Maine, he does so to fulfil a duty his eleven-year-old son had taken on. As part of Scout Troupe 23, the boy (whose name is never mentioned) had been doing yard work, filling the bird feeders, whatever needed to be done for the old lady. But now could not. Quinn plans to do his duty for the required seven Saturdays and then move on. But in Ona’s house, he finds traces of the son he was unable to connect with in life. “Quinn had never wanted children, had been an awkward, largely absent father; and now, in the wake of the boy’s death, he was left with neither the ice-smooth paralysis of shock, not the crystalline focus of grief, but rather with a heart-swelling package of murky and miserable ironies” Miss Ona Vitkus is old; one hundred and four years old, to be exact. “Her stockinged legs looked like rake handles jammed into small black shoes”. And yet, somehow, this old lady does connect with the boy: “He waited. With the unruffled patience of a cat. This did not seem like a deficiency…She regarded him carefully; maybe it was the uniform, which could have been fifty years old; maybe it was his throwback manners; or the sea gray of his irises, which suggested an age and wisdom he could not possibly possess” She finds she trusts him enough to consent to the recording of her memories: “He began with a question of his own, passed across the table in immaculate penmanship. His handmade questions, the product of silent forethought, invariably unhooked a shut gate, leaving her to brace against an onrush of memory. The surprise was how little she minded” “She felt suddenly fond of her unremarkable life, that humdrum necklace of imitation pearls with the occasional glint of the real thing. The boy kept glancing at her as he would at a prize heifer, and she felt like one: round and healthy, clean and well brushed, a surefire winner”. Wood’s format is original: Divided into five parts, each prefaced with a Lithuanian word, she uses a combination of straight narrative, transcripts of tape recordings and World Record Lists (which may seem a little strange, but is quite effective) to tell the far-from-ordinary life story of Miss Ona Vitkus, but also to reveal events in the life of Quinn, the boy, and his mother, Belle. Wood’s descriptive prose is exquisite: “Mrs Japan and Mrs Romania had unpronounceable names, the former free-floating with vowels, the latter fortressed by consonants” and “She’s tucked the boy safely offstage, in a species of Limbo. He was less than real but more, much more, than a memory: a voice speaking from the wings, an impression of living stillness” are examples. Wood’s characters are appealing for all their quirks and flaws, especially the boy: “Belle managed something like a laugh despite her sorrow, for the boy’s syntactical oddities had always pleased her. He’d read obsessively – instruction manuals, record books, novels far too old for him – picking up linguistic baubles like a cr
Anonymous 7 months ago
Great characters. Interesting storyline. Rollercoaster of emotions. Loved and hated the ending all at once.
GratefulGrandma 10 months ago
Ona Vitkus is 104 years old, a Lithuanian immigrant whose prickly exterior belies a warm heart, a mischievous spirit, and a lifetime of regrets. When the local Boy Scout troop assigns an awkward yet earnest scout to help her with household tasks to earn a merit badge, she's ready to scare him away as she has the others, if he doesn't disappoint her first. Yet there's something about this boy that makes Ona let down her guard. Perhaps it's his lack of self-confidence, or his incessant curiosity about her life. Perhaps it's his emotional openness and his desire to be won over by everything she does. Or perhaps it's his obsession with the Guinness Book of World Records, which even fuels in Ona a desire to find a record she can achieve, even at her age. The two form a close bond, made more so as he chooses her as an interview subject for a school assignment. But when one weekend when the boy doesn't show up, and his father Quinn, an erstwhile musician who had trouble connecting with his son, appears in his place, Ona feels hurt and disappointed that he abandoned their relationship and their quest. It isn't long, however, before she realizes the boy died suddenly and inexplicably, and Quinn decides to pick up his son's tasks in an effort to better understand the boy who bewildered him, who never seemed to get what Quinn wanted to give him. Quinn is adrift, wanting to land on his feet professionally yet feeling utterly lost psychologically. Belle, his ex-wife (twice) and the boy's mother, won't let him share in her anger or her guilt, and all she wants to do is make Quinn pay for not giving their son the love and security he needed and deserved. But while she wants both to mourn her son and get on with her life, she starts to realize that Quinn might have the right idea in forging a relationship with Ona in an effort to keep the boy alive. The One-in-a-Million Boy is moving, beautiful, and even a little whimsical. Ona and Quinn are particularly fascinating characters, and I love the way Monica Wood gave Ona so much more depth than I first expected. Amazingly, however, it is the boy who is the most memorable character, despite the fact that we never learn his name, and you mostly see him through the eyes of Ona and his parents, as well as his myriad lists of Guinness record-holders. This is a special book, one which dwells not on surprising plot twists but rather on pure emotion. You may know where Wood will take her characters, but you savor the journey anyway, and if you're like me, you may tear up (at the very least) a time or two.
bouncyberthaCR More than 1 year ago
3.5 - "Start counting." Stars. I will be honest and say that after reading the prequel novella to this book A Woman in a Million, I wasn’t 100% certain that I was going to get on with the authors writing style. But The One-in-a-Million Boy was a really unusual and intriguing read. Miss Ona Vitkus has lead a long and varied life, the book is basically the retelling of it through different mediums. You are given her early years and mid life adventures through the tape recordings of the Boy. And what begins as a child doing good deeds for an elderly woman, develops into so much more as an unlikely friendship grows between them on his weekly visits, flashbacks of her memories, and her retelling certain incidents in the course of her interactions with other characters in the story. She’s no twinkly old gal in a gingham apron. But those visits come to an abrupt halt, and Ona is left wondering if the boy is as flaky as all of the other children who have been tasked with giving her assistance in the past. That is until two weeks after his last visit, the boy’s father; Quinn turns up at the allotted time, and on the required day to fulfill his son’s obligations over the forthcoming weeks, something he can no longer do himself. "He was made of magic." What follows is a journey of grief and self-discovery, guilt and acceptance, letting the past go, and making plans for the future. Mainly told from Ona and Quinn’s points of view, this is a tale of an unexpected allegiance that grows from a mutual and wholly unexpected loss. Both are quite complex characters, the Ona of now, is a different Ona to the one you discover over the course of the book as her hundred odd years of living are covered, this is a woman that has lived through all of the important world events of the last century, and you get her own take on a lot of them and their impact on her life in general as the story progresses. "People don’t write their own endings." Quinn also spends a large amount of time through the book reflecting on his past as well, mistakes he made with Belle, his son’s mother, the lack of any meaningful time that he feels he felt with his son. Acknowledging that in truth he really didn’t understand him as a little boy, due to his unique personality and interests being so much different from his own. "I did fall in love with him… But not until after he was gone." This was such an unusual and diverse story. Each character you come into contact with through Ona and Quinn, very much has a part to play in it the overall flow, the timeline does move back and forwards somewhat but it wasn’t a struggle to keep up with what was going on in the plot at any point. I really liked the characters, and the writer has a very engaging writing style in that everything was vividly described and at points in very unique ways, but for all that I also found it felt a little blunt in parts, and totally lacking two very important things for me and that was feelings and emotions. The delivery of the whole book for want of a better word was dry, and while entertaining I really missed the emotional attachment I would normally expect to form with characters that have experienced such an upsetting event, but it wasn’t until the closing chapters that I really felt anything from or for any of them, for almost the whole book I felt like I was on the outside looking in, rather than being pulled into the fabric of the story. I would certainly look too read more from Monica in t