There are “ways of making people into ghosts”. So Atticus say, to Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird, about Boo (Arthur) Radley.
Neil Smith turned Oliver Dalrymple into a ghost in Boo. And, then, he named him Boo and gave him a Casper the Friendly Ghost wrist watch.
Whether or not Arthur Radley and Oliver Dalymple have anything more than a nickname in common is for readers to discover. (A trial does take centre stage in both novels, but matters of justice frequently feature in novels about teenagers, who are struggling to weigh their own truths.)
Much of the pleasure of Boo is derived from an unearthing of layers and interconnections, a gradual comprehension punctuated by a sly sense of humour viewed through the slats.
“Do you ever wonder, dear Mother and Father, what kind of toothpaste angels use in heaven? I will tell you. We use baking soda sprinkled on our toothbrushes. It tastes salty, which comes as no surprise because baking soda is a kind of salt known as sodium bicarbonate.”
Certainly, our narrator Boo is a curious and bookish sort: one of the first things he notices when he reaches the afterlife is what book the girl in a swivel chair is reading (Brown Girl, Brownstones).
[Our author, Neil Smith, is a bookish sort too; his allusions to works as diverse as Paula Danziger’s and Madeleine L’Engle’s novels make for many delightful moments of recognition for readers who will understand how perfectly these buildings and streets are named.]
While he was alive, Boo kept his copy of Lord of the Flies in his locker, #106. (The book design is clever, though the ’80s-child in me longed for cut-outs in the locker slats.)
But the spine of his schoolbook was uncreased; it seems he hadn’t yet read the tale of adolescent boys who exist separately for a period of time, developing their own rule-sets and hierarchies, which leads to extreme behaviours unforgettable for readers of all ages.
[Neil Smith must have read it; the afterlife of adolescents he constructs would make a fabulous compare/contrast question on a high-school English exam.]
Boo was memorizing all the elements in the periodic table in chronological order when he died on September 7, 1979.
In Boo’s time, there were 106 elements to memorize: 98 naturally occurring and 8 synthesized elements.
If he were to die today, there would be 114 confirmed elements and 118 in the chart. Scientists are still making discoveries; knowledge is not static, and the list of elements once memorized for science class becomes incomplete.
(Between the lines of Boo’s study notes, readers glimpse profound questions. On what can we depend? To whom do we direct our questions? What sticks and what changes? How do these answers evolve as we grow?)
“‘Father,’ I say aloud now, alone in my room ‘I’m stuck at age thirteen. I’m stuck here for a frigging lifetime.’”
Boo is stuck in the afterlife, which is called Town, with all the other American thirteen-year-olds who have died in the last fifty years. He has had a myriad of questions answered just as he discovered more to ask. (And readers, too, will have many questions about this afterlife, which is just as random a concept as those posited by contemporary religious systems, particularly in terms of access and structure.)
“The smarts I have – about amoebae and nebulae and formulae – are useless here. What I need is the kind of intelligence that helps me understand why a boy might walk into a school and start shooting a gun, why one victim might forgive this boy, and why another never will.”
Ironically, questions of identity and perspective are just as paramount in a novel about thirteen-year-old kids in the afterlife as in life itself. Questions of naming are significant, but even more haunting are the more profound matters that inform us, the everyday choices we make that affect how (and for how long) we inhabit our own lives.
“Go on a haunting and you can do some sleuthing. Find out if your killer’s down in America or up in heaven. Hell, you might even find out the kid’s real name. ‘Cause it sure ain’t ‘Gunboy’.'”
[One of the works alluded to is S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, in which Ponyboy Curtis has to face some serious losses and weigh matters of justice. There are many references to stories about exploring and searching, facing and instigating destruction (even death), and a desire to connect (either with other people, particularly in powerful friendships or overwhelming loneliness, or a personal sense of meaning).]
“Death changes a child. We townies are not necessarily the same children we left behind in our previous lives.”
Boo was changed by his death, too, but it becomes clear that he does not recall all of the details, only the basics. His search for answers is not only removed from the average thirteen-year-old boy’s search, but different, too, from the average thirteen-year-old ghost’s search.
There are ordinary questions to answer and broader metaphysical and philosophical concerns too. What happened in front of locker #106? And “[w]hy has Zig himself not put a stop to this folly? Has he no shame? No wisdom? No superpowers? What is the use of a god without superpowers?” (Boo uses ‘Zig’ to denote ‘God’ in this document, which Boo envisions as a letter to his parents to keep them up-to-date on the happenings in the afterlife.)
Above all, Boo is an observer. This is true, too, of his living-life, although readers only come to understand that aspect of Boo’s character much later in the story, for residents of this afterlife remain there for 50 years, changing but not aging.
“Now, in the distance, a half dozen kids run screaming across the same field. Whether they are terrorizing one another or just playing I cannot tell. A robin lands a yard away. It stares at me, head tilted one way and then the other, as though I am a tricky puzzle it is trying to solve.”
Solving such matters is tricky indeed. Children are innocent and cruel; they terrorize and they play. Even from a short distance away, it can be challenging to differentiate between sensory details. These secrets and mysteries are more difficult to solve than anything the Hardy Boys faced in their long careers as investigators.
“Harriet was trying to explain to Sport how to lay Town. ‘See, first you make up the name of the town. Then you write down the names of all the poeple who live in it.” This is how it happens in Harriet the Spy, how Harriet makes sense of the act of writing for her friend.
Perhaps Boo is a very sophisticated game of playing and creating and inhabiting Town. If so, I hope Neil Smith has a stack of new notebooks even larger than the stack he’s already filled.