Title: Olive’s Ocean | Author: Kevin Henkes | Publisher: Greenwillow Books | ISBN: 0060535458
Young Olive Barstow has died in a hit-and-run. She was the loner at school: no friends, quiet, and rather odd. Martha knew her as a classmate, but they never really spoke. So, when Olive’s mother stops by Martha’s house to give her a page from Olive’s journal, Martha is naturally puzzled. What business could she possibly have with a single page from Olive’s writings?
As it turns out, Olive had mentioned Martha in her journal before she died. Martha is humbled to learn that Olive had wished to be her friend. As Martha reads on, more of Olive’s lost thoughts, hopes, and dreams are revealed to her, giving her an entirely new, mature perspective on life and death. Olive’s words begin to shape Martha into a maturer young person who no longer takes her own life for granted.
Martha spends most of the novel with her family at her grandmother’s (Godbee’s) home by the beach on vacation. During this time, she reads and rereads Olive’s page, and attempts to write her own story (which Olive is the main character of).
At Godbee’s, Martha must face death in varied stages: as having already happened, and also happening before her eyes. Olive — a classmate her own age — is gone, and that seems hard enough to fathom. On top of this, Godbee is reaching her time in her old age, though she remains strong and lively. All of this seems almost surreal, but Martha is forced to come to terms with death. Through this, she begins to develop a more mature perspective on life.
Our protagonist even has her own near death experience — a silly accident. But this moment changes her viewpoint so drastically that all of her previous personal thoughts and anxieties feel almost trivial. It’s not that Martha’s teenage worries and experiences are not important — but she realizes that they are not all there is, and in the grand scheme of things, she’ll be just fine. There is more to life than the things going on around her. The embarrassing moments pass, people move on, and people forget. The conclusion that the world does not revolve around her comes to her in the most tangible way.
This theme is what carries the novel to its bittersweet end. Martha, having read in Olive’s journal that Olive wished she could see the ocean, takes an ocean-water-filled jar back home to give to Olive’s mother. While it is incredibly endearing that she wishes to honour Olive in this way, this act is not really for anyone but herself. Sure, it is for Olive in a way, but Olive is gone. It is not an act for Olive’s mother, as it would do her little good. However, it would bring Martha herself a feeling of closure. Thus, when she reaches Olive’s old home to find Olive’s mother has moved away, we feel a short disappointment. But Martha, initially a little confused as to what to do, handles this moment beautifully. The world does not revolve around her.
Henkes handles his characters carefully and simply so they are not overdone. As such, they are realistic and relatable.
Martha’s relationship with her brother Vince is refreshing to read and adds dimension to both characters. Vince is a little older than Martha, so he clearly wants his space from her and the rest of his family. Full of disappointment at this, Martha often shows it through harmless passive aggression. However, Martha and Vince have always been too close and care too much for each other for this division to last very long, making it a heartwarming sibling relationship to read about.
Martha is a realistic, likeable main character. Even her (relatable) teen moments — those of irritation and angst — are written sensitively and respectfully. I believe most adult writers often betray young people in a way, as they tend to write them as stupid, annoying, irrational fools. And sure, teenagers can be that way (I sure was); but they are more than that and are certainly not those things all of the time. Young people are complex. They should be given more respect in literature. Kevin Henkes has done this with Martha.
Juxtaposed with Martha is Jimmy, an old family-friend around her age whom she spends time with and develops feelings for while at Godbee’s. Jimmy is an aspiring filmmaker working on a film project that attempts to explore every important feature and stage of life: family, fights, love, death, etc. It is ironic that for someone so keen on revealing life’s most profound moments, Jimmy is extremely shallow and dishonest. From what we see of him, he manipulates others, puts them into uncomfortable situations, and does not care what he must do in order to get the perfect shot. This is what brings Jimmy to betray Martha most inconsiderately.
Jimmy and Martha are both artists but they are essentially polar opposites and this is what leads to their division. Jimmy is sure of himself, and Martha is not. Jimmy is sure of his “art”, but Martha is not. While Jimmy sees everything through his own personal lens, Martha is expanding her vision outside of her own narrow viewpoint. Henkes shows us how Jimmy’s arrogance is reflected in his “art”, and how Martha’s sincerity and hopefulness are reflected in hers.
I do wish we knew more about Olive, but the novel is not really about her. This is about Martha’s growth, and understanding of life and death. Olive’s journal page is the only way we know her, and it is a device to allow for Martha’s realizations.
Henkes has written a thoughtful, simple and yet layered novel for young adults and children. I sincerely enjoyed reading Olive’s Ocean and highly recommend it to anyone who appreciates good young adult literature.
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