The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron

Sheryn Morris, Librarian, Literature & Fiction,
author Susan Patron and her book the Higher Power of Lucky
Author Susan Patron and her award winning book the Higher Power of Lucky

When a book is not a current bestseller or is an older book and suddenly receives a great deal of attention, people often want to know why. I think four possible reasons might explain this "sudden" interest: the author received an award; there was a scandal about the book and/or the author; there was an adaptation of the book (film, television, stage); or the author recently died. When The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron was published in 2006, children's librarians knew about the book, but in 2007, the author was awarded the John Newbery Medal. In addition, there was a brouhaha about one word in the novel. This was definitely a public relations twofer. There were opinions from librarians, literary critics, and the public, including an article in The New York Times, February 18, 2007, "With One Word, Children's Book Sets Off Uproar." Now, in 2023, with Susan Patron's death on October 24, 2023, there is renewed interest, including my own, in this insightful children's novel. Rereading the book, I was freshly overwhelmed and impressed with the book and its creator.

From 1972 - 2007, Susan Patron was a full-time librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library and also a writer. In 2007, I was an adult librarian and a former children's librarian. When news that the Newbery Medal was bestowed on one of our colleagues, I read the book, was wowed, and remember congratulating Susan in the Central Library's lobby, near the bronze elevators. Soon after, she retired and continued writing, with two sequels that comprise the Hard Pan Trilogy. Around 2020, I spoke with her about a possible interview with another librarian. She was not feeling well and agreed to an email interview at a future date. Time and events moved on, and alas, that was not to be.

Susan Patron was the senior librarian in children's services from 1980 - 2007, and I was a children's librarian from 1980 - 1985, so I had known her professionally. When she began publishing children's books in the early 1990s, I read them but was not all that keen and could not see where she was headed, but never said anything. Writers and other artists need to find their way, frequently with the support and guidance of those close to them, which Susan had. They were a marvelous group of people who were individually thanked and acknowledged in the concluding sections of all three books in the Hard Pan Trilogy. With or without a Newbery Medal, I thought, and still think, The Higher Power of Lucky is a book that is the crowning achievement of a writer in full command of her artistic powers, able to create a children's novel unique in its treatment of the inner thoughts, emotions, and yearnings of a ten-and-half-year-old girl and her two chums. There are well-portrayed adults in the novel who are reminiscent of some characters in John Steinbeck's Cannery Row. However, it is the poetic treatment of the inner thoughts and emotions of the children that, in a very good way, slows down your reading pace and makes you feel, think, and remember.

The basic plot is not complicated. Ten-and-half-year-old Lucky Trimble lives in Hard Pan, California, on the edge of the Mojave Desert, population 43. She has one close friend, Lincoln, who is fascinated by intricate knotwork, at which he is a dab hand. And there is five-year-old Miles, who pesters anyone and everyone for a cookie and to have his favorite book, Are You My Mother? read to him over and over again. Lucky's mother died the previous year, and her father never wanted children, but he is not heartless or irresponsible. He buys a plane ticket for his first wife, Brigitte, to fly from France to the USA to be Lucky's temporary guardian until some permanent arrangement can be worked out. As the plot unfolds, Lucky becomes anxious that her temporary guardian will abandon her. The young girl decides to run away, hoping it will draw attention to her tenuous situation. She also thinks this presumably well-planned adventure will help her find her higher power. Then, she can take control of her own life.

The plot is seamlessly woven with rich revealing complexities about people and how they behave, how children experience life and ponder their emerging feelings that to them are sometimes confusing and inexplicable. Susan captured it all because she had the ability to see, to sense, and to say. Her ability to express these complexities in poetic grandeur and playfulness is what makes this novel exceptional.

Poetry is the most intense and concentrated form of writing, using words, meter, rhyme, and format to express thoughts, feelings, and ideas that can be fact or fiction. It gets at the marrow of truth and truth-telling using words to create an image of a feeling or a thought. It can be both playful and serious at the same time. There are writers who ably use poetic language as part of their narrative prose and do it oh so well. Susan Patron was one of those writers.

There is no template for this type of inspired writing, but for Susan, there was a connection from her undergraduate time at Pitzer College. She spent a junior year abroad at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, where she "sharpened her listening-for-stories skills, surrounded by gowned professors as well as the cab drivers, the children, and the pub orators—the best extemporaneous talkers in the world." (Publishers Weekly, October 26, 2023)

There was also a French connection in Susan's life, her husband, René Patron. This might be why Lucky's temporary guardian, Brigitte, is French and why she lavishes French endearments on Lucky: ma puce, mon choux. René Patron was a bookbinder and restorer of rare books who was as exceptional in his art as Susan was in hers. "He's an interesting blend of both a contemporary nature and a traditional one," stated antiquarian book dealer Michael Dawson. His work was revered by many in the Los Angeles area and, in particular, by the Huntington Library. Susan and René two rare individuals drawn to each other—soulmates.

Susan is gone, and her loving husband, family, and friends will not have the pleasure of her company. The rest of us, and many others to follow, will have the pleasure and delight of reading this book, a slim volume with a deceptively simple plot, elegantly rich with evocative language and insights into what children feel and need. Yes! A children's book can have all of this and speak to children as well as adults.