The Mailbox, by Audrey Shafer, Delacorte Press, 2006
Grade Level: 6-8
ISBN: 0-385-73344-5 $15.95
Blanket Permission to Reproduce Book Jackets:
Preferred wording: The Mailbox, by Audrey Shafer, Delcorte Press © 2006, an imprint of Random House Childrens Books.
Synopsis: Twelve-year-old Gabe Culligan Pace has had a rough life, but things have evened out really nicely for him lately. In his early years Gabe was a foster kid, shuttled from place to place without a home. Then his social worker found his long-lost Uncle Vernon, and things were looking good. Uncle Vernon is kind of crusty. He has a prosthetic leg and a gruff manner, but it's obvious that he and his nephew get along really well. You can't blame Gabe for not knowing that Vernon would have secrets, secrets from his Vietnam War days. Then one day, Gabe comes home from school, his first day of sixth-grade, and Uncle Vernon is dead on the floor. The next morning Gabe goes to school like usual and tries not to think about what to do. When he gets home, there's a note in the mailbox. On one side it says, "I have a secret". On the other side it says, "Do not be afraid.” But when Gabe comes into the house and finds that his uncle's body has disappeared, he is afraid, very afraid. Throughout the rest of the book Gabe has to navigate new territory and situations, and his main mission is to stay safe and out of the foster-care system. He does all this while grieving for his uncle and wondering if Vernon’s death was his fault in any way.
If you haven't read the book yet, you've no idea how good it's going to be. To begin with, first time author Audrey Shafer doesn't come across as first time at all. Her writing is crisp and full of perfectly-placed little descriptions. When Gabe discovers his uncle's body right off the bat he cries. "Messy crying, the kind of crying that leaves you swollen, red, and leaky". When later he pets his dog at the base of the neck between the shoulders, "He could lose his hands there, then pull his fingers up, like pink fish rising from a bed of soft seaweed". Here’s one more. "Evening, with her blowing skirts of cooling breezes and rustling leaves, swirled her colors, first fiery then deep blue, through the house and around the house". As you will read, Shafer uses many examples of figurative language which are wonderful for our Kansas (state-assessment-bound) students to read.
Characters are beautifully defined here as well. First of all, there's the heroic teacher Mr. Boehm. He has a sense of humor, which makes him suspect. As Gabe knows, teachers that joke are separated into two categories. "Joking teachers were either friendly and open, or closed to all but their own humor, in love with their own voice.” Every person has his/her own agenda and his/her own way of doing things in this story. You get a sense of who they are and what they want through Shafer's writing. The characters are not flat; they are interesting and well-rounded. A couple of them even surprise us with how they have changed. Uncle Vernon’s great dialogue, especially his comforting bedtime philosophy, came out along the lines of, "Scum-lickin' pus-suckin' buckets of trouble ken happen whether you're good or bad. But why git spit by skunk muck? Stay low and steer clear of screw-ups, Gabe.” Sound advice. This what is later referred to as, "the usual scrubbed raw dash of wisdom.”
The storyline is unique and wonderful. Here we have Gabe living on his own without a guardian, his dead uncle missing, and a mysterious somebody sending him letters. His only confidante for a large portion of the story is his dog, Guppy. So many books begin with a good premise, but it is not sustained in many cases. Shafer manages to keep us readers interested and also satisfied throughout the entire book.
Themes: Foster home care; Uncles; Death
Author information: Audrey Shafer was educated at the Philadelphia High School for Girls, Harvard, Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania. She works at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System as an associate professor of anesthesia, through the Stanford University School of Medicine. She has two teenage children. Her website is www.ashafer.com . The Mailbox is her first book.
Discussion Questions: (Standard 3; Benchmark 3)
- Uncle Vernon’s philosophical advice was given to Gabe at bedtime. Do you have
- an older relative who talks in adages or who gives unique advice? Explain.
- On the third day of school, Gabe decided to stay home. Why? List at least five things he did that day at home. How did some of these trigger memories of Uncle Vernon?
- (after Ch.9) What details do we readers learn about Gabe’s maternal grandpa, Vernon’s dad? What kind of a man was he? What kind of a relationship did Vernon and his dad have?
- The author uses flashback as a literary device often. Gabe is constantly thinking of conversations and experiences with his Uncle Vernon. In Ch. 9, does Gabe hear details of his mom’s death from Vernon? Why or why not? Does he ever find out the details of her death?
- (after Ch. 11) “Life is a puppet thing,” according to the metaphor that Jack London used in Call of the Wild. Explain the metaphor.
- Choose one of these statements from the book and make a personal comment/opinion about it: A. They’re not honoring the memory. (p. 140) B. Smitty told me that thinking weird thoughts is okay. It doesn’t mean I’m bad. (p. 143) C. Above all, he’s a politician. (p. 154)
- (after Ch. 18) Make a detailed prediction and write it down. How will the book end? With whom will Gabe live after the funeral? Don’t worry if you end up wrong. It is just fun to predict.
- Comment on one of these war-and-chess statements: A. War isn’t chess. A stalemate in chess is a draw. Nobody wins, but nobody loses. But a stalemate in war is different; everybody loses. You can’t fight for a stalemate. (p. 165) B. Remember the fool’s mate in chess? That you can get set up for the easiest trap and not realize it until it’s too late? It was like that all the time in the war. We were set up, trapped, conned over and over. It made you suspicious of the slightest movement. It made you jumpy, and sometimes you’d overreact. (p. 166)
- (after Ch. 21) Why does Guppy distrust men in uniform even more than before?
- (after p. 36) Draw Mrs. Pickering in her kitchen. What do her surroundings look like? Give her a dialogue bubble. What is she saying to Gabe? To others who enter her kitchen? (Standard 5, Benchmark 3)
- (in the middle of p.39) Find the onomatopoeia that refers to the doggie-door sound. How would you spell the sound? Now find five similes from the book which you’ve read so far. Hint: On the first two pages you will find similes regarding Vernon’s scribbly handwriting and his fan and how it looked. Keep looking for more. Reading Standard: Figurative Language: (Standard 1, Benchmark 3, Indicator 5)
- (after reading Ch. 6) Draw a Venn Diagram and complete one of the following: A. Compare Gabe’s new routine of taking a shower to his old. Remember to show similarities and differences. B. Compare the parenting styles of each of Webber’s parents. (Standard 7, Benchmark 5)
- (after finishing the book) Gabe’s friendship with Smitty helped Smitty deal with his guilt feelings regarding a young child in Vietnam. Search the internet for a news story about at least one wounded, returning soldier from Iraq. Read and empathize. Do you know anyone personally who has experienced a war injury? Listen and empathize. (Standard 1, Benchmark 5)
Similar Books for Further Reading
Children of the Dragon: Selected Tales from Vietnam by Sherry Garland and Trina Hyman
Escape from Saigon by Andrea Warren
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
Where I’d Like to Be by Frances O’Roark Dowell
Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff