Ona Vitkus is 104 years old. She is about to go on a journey in search of her past, but does not know this until an odd 11 year old enters her life. The boy’s arrival to her home in pursuit of a merit badge opens a door of redemption and love that many times goes unnoticed in the course of lives lived. Then the boy is gone. It is a death just as strange as the boy’s habits of list making and his compulsive obsession with the Guinness Book of World records.
People constantly come in and out of our lives and many times we do not realize their impact until after they are gone. We also tend to think a life, any life, must begin at the beginning, but as we quickly learn, it does not. “Because the story of your life never starts at the beginning. Don’t they teach you anything in school?” Miss Vitkus asks one day. This thread of truth is perfectly crafted and weaved into Monica Wood’s new novel, The One-in-a- Million Boy.
The boy of the book’s title is never named and shortly after his death, his absentee musician father, Quinn, arrives at the Lithuanian widow’s doorstep. There to finish what the boy started and perhaps receive redemption for lost time, he fulfills his son’s promise of seven Saturdays of yard work. In the process he begins to learn about his son’s short but unusual life. It is through the curious, often times bizarre, lists and recordings the boy made in seeking to record the life of a Miss Ona Vitkus that the real magic of the novel seeps through. In a quest to set a world record as the oldest licensed driver, Quinn along with his ex-wife, Belle takes Ona on a trip to locate the needed documentation. This results in a healing journey of remembrance, lost time, and the boy’s unifying presence between a grief stricken father and mother.
The characters within the story display a splendid mix of humor and sadness, dislocation and redemption which all somehow comes together to create a story both beautiful and uplifting for the reader. Wood, a Maine native living in Portland, is skillful at crafting prose that speaks to the heart of love even with the sometimes ugly, confusing and quirky forms it takes on throughout life. The boy is a powerful invisible character who provides direction and a path for that love to find its way through the murkiness of sad situations and reinforces the often unseen imprint a life can have on those left behind. The book is a testament that sadness and grief can, through expert storytelling, also be heartwarming and inspirational.
The One-in-a-Million Boy is a gem of a book touched by magic and oozing with smiles and tears. And with its expertly crafted dual story lines and its unbounded pursuit of a mooring to home for some readers, it is being compared to Anthony Doerr’s award winning novel All the Light We Cannot See. It has been said in previous reviews that many believe this to be Wood’s most ambitious book. One review in particular said, “It is, like all her stories, about love – love not given, love given generously, love not understood and love as simple and uncomplicated as a songbird’s call and that possibility should never be discounted.” I could not agree more.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016 Hardcover, $25.00