Review

PUBLICATION DATE: JANUARY 12, 2013

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very story starts somewhere, Scarlet Blaine tells me as Chasing Jupiter opens, and then continues to narrate her own.  This remarkable tale feels more like a tete-a-tete between friends than a book.

Scarlet is a person, not a character, and she speaks with passion and with angst that aren’t so different from what I felt when I was sixteen years old. She’s telling me her story from Georgia in 1969; a time and place that might as well be the moon. Nevertheless, by the third line Scarlet and I have become fast friends and I am awash in her world.

Cliff, her younger brother, just pushed his birthday list under her door. As I follow her down stairs to the kitchen. We discover he’s eaten his cereal with soured milk because cereal and milk are part of his breakfast routine. It’s the first hint I get that Cliff is different.   The next comes with his birthday list which is as ordered as it is outrageous, including items like “eight moons in the sky instead of one” and “five books on how to speak Spanish”.

As the day progresses, I meet Scarlet’s  Grandpop Barley who is also a tad peculiar, her father who works in the peach orchard,  her older sister Juli, and her mother who is a maid and server at the Plantation House.  This is a family who is blue collar striving to be white collar, and not making it. They are a family struggling to be content with one another, if not happy.

Scarlet’s main goal is to secure this contentment because there are serious threats to it. Cliff’s uniqueness is not appreciated by many. It doesn’t matter that he knows more about Spanish battles than anyone else or that he can create knock-knock jokes better than anyone else.  Cliff’s habit of referring to himself in the third person, being fascinated by minutiae and unable to leave his routine mark him as “crazy” to the outside world and even to his own parents. He’s not the only one jeopardizing the contentment either.  Juli is leaving to be with her new boyfriend at all hours and espousing frighteningly strange doctrines of ‘universal happiness’, and Grandpop Barley’s fixation with peanut butter borders on the psychotic.

When Cliff, Scarlet, and Grandpop Barley watch reruns of the Apollo 8 Mission, Cliff’s idea of being the first astronaut to Jupiter is born. With a long Summer of being nursemaid to her mentally not-always-there grandfather and babysitting Cliff, the idea of baking peach pies and selling them to raise money to make her brother a rocket to Jupiter strikes Scarlet as the perfect way to while away the hours.

As Cliff begins his illegal raid of the peach orchard where his father works, Scarlet and I meet Frank, an eighteen year old knight in shining armor disguised in the form of the son of the orchard owner. He agrees to their plan, taking his payment in free peach pies.

As I travel through the Summer of ’69 with Scarlet, Cliff, and Frank  chasing Cliff’s dream of being the first astronaut  to Jupiter, I watch each of them change. Like the tadpoles they find in a hidden spring, flashing in the moonlight, each is on a journey of change.  Scarlet struggles to conquer her fear of growing up, and her desperate need to know things will be all right. Frank wrestles with attraction to Juli and affection for Scarlet.  Cliff battles other people’s perceptions and his own family’s blindness.

Chasing Jupiter  is full of well-rounded secondary characters that help these three on their journey, and lend a tremendous depth to  the themes of family, neighbors, and the sacrifice of love. Faith also plays a key role in Scarlet’s tale, but it’s not a faith shiny and sure of itself. It’s dented and worn and scratched badly in places and rusted through in others. It’s working faith that’s been bought at great price and holds strong through the pain of her family being terribly damaged and rebuilt.

It looks a lot like mine.

Like mine, Scarlet’s only works because God gives it to her, and it survives her fires and tests because He strengthens it to do just that.

Rachel Coker’s Chasing Jupiter is a rare book that not only entertains, it tells the truth in a way which will change you, if you allow it to do so.

–Michelle Black

 
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eventeen-year old author Rachel Coker follows up on her debut, Interrupted: A Life Beyond Words, with Chasing Jupiter, a well-written coming-of-age novel.

The story is set in rural 1960s Georgia and centers around Scarlett Blaine. Scarlett has a lot to deal with. Her parents are struggling financially and her sister, Juli, is embracing a hippie lifestyle. Meanwhile, Scarlett, despite being a teenager herself, is left to watch over her grandfather Barley, who has dementia, and her brother, Cliff, who is autistic. Scarlett has her hands full.

Things become even more difficult when Cliff develops a new obsession. When he and Scarlett watch Neil Armstrong take his historic first steps on the mood during the summer of 1969, Cliff is so inspired that he decides he would like to be an astronaut too. In fact, he wants to be the first person to fly to Jupiter.

Scarlett promises to try to help Cliff achieve his dream, and she decides to spend her summer baking and selling peach pies to help raise money for materials. The peach farmer’s son, Frank, agrees to help them before he heads off to college.

The summer is packed with drama as Grandfather Barley’s condition worsens, Juli makes a drastic decision, and Cliff suffers a terrible injury.

Overall, this is a sweet and emotional story about likeable characters. I particularly enjoyed how Coker handles Scarlett’s doubts. It felt very realistic for someone enduring such heavy things at a young age to have some questions about the meaning of life and God’s plan for her. Scarlett is an admirable person who truly loves her family and wants to do the right thing. She means well. At the same time, I got slightly frustrated at how she spends so much time on the rocket plan. I know she wants to help Cliff, but I was impatient with that storyline after a while. Still, I enjoyed the interactions between Scarlett and Frank. The way their relationship blossoms feels very genuine and Coker is good at drafting realistic dialogue.

Scarlett’s grandfather was another source of minor frustration for me. I understand that he suffers from dementia but he wasn’t enjoyable to read about, especially his repeated requests for peanut butter. I found myself wanting to skip over the parts that dealt with him.

The ending feels a tiny bit rushed, but for the most part, the plot develops at a good pace.

My favorite aspect of the book is the Christian message, which is lovely and handled deftly. Without giving anything away, Scarlett is strong and hangs in there but even she has a breaking point. Mrs. Greene provides meaningful guidance to Scarlett when Scarlett is wondering how to go on. She helps Scarlett to hand over control of her life to God and to trust Him to take care of her.

I have not read Coker’s first book, but it’s clear that she has talent, even at such a young age. She’s certainly a writer to watch.

–Heather Adams