Book Club Banter

'The One-in-a-million Boy' by Monica Wood

By Kathy Olsen | Mar 15, 2017

Monica Wood never calls the 11-year-old boy at the center of her new novel by name; he is simply referred to as “the boy” from the beginning. It’s not a spoiler to let you know that this serious, list-making and Guinness Record obsessed little boy dies suddenly. His absentee musician father, Quinn, honors the boy’s Scout responsibilities by doing chores for the 104-year-old curmudgeon of the story, Ona Vitkus. Thes work begins as a sort of ‘penance’ for this father who missed much of his child’s life but it becomes so much more. The friendship that blossoms between Quinn and Ona is a balm for both of them.

Ona’s sad and fascinating life story beginning with her birth in Lithuania is revealed through the boy’s 10-part recorded school project interview with her. She slowly comes to understand that his probing questions were a gift to her, not an intrusion. The reader learns that her parents NEVER spoke to her in Lithuania and they didn’t know English so…she grew up in a very quiet household. She had a son as a teenager that she had to give away and much more. We quickly gain an understanding and appreciation of not only Ona but also the boy through these funny, sweet and sometimes sad exchanges. The writing device Wood uses is clever, we never see the comments or questions of the boy and yet the conversation is as clear as can be.

Ona: Yes, I did see my son again. November 1963. Same day the president was shot. Ona: Not Lincoln. For crumbsake! Kennedy!

The interview dialogue is consistent throughout the book and is the main way we get to know Ona. But, to say that the book is only about Ona, the boy, and the school project, would be like saying that Moby Dick is about fishing.   It’s about each person in the story growing and learning from each other, about various ways to repair a broken heart, regret and making amends. And setting goals! As part of his Guinness obsession, the boy was determined that he would help Ona to set the record for the oldest licensed driver. After his death, Quinn and his grief-stricken ex-wife Belle, carry the torch of this hope and the purpose brings everyone some happiness.

At 104, Ona is a bit of a misfit in this modern fast paced world but she finds a kindred spirit in the quirky and socially awkward boy. Their relationship is heartbreaking and sweet without being too overly sentimental. Wood finds a perfect balance.  Though Ona and the boy had very little time together, the friendship between Quinn and Ona is a ‘continuation’ of their relationship in many ways. The story reveals the beauty of a surprise friendship-the one you didn’t know you needed. Quinn, always used to ending relationships says to Belle, “ Ona is a little more than I bargained for, I don’t know how to, you know, wrap it up.” And Belle responds, “What you bargained for is a friendship, you’re not supposed to wrap it up.” There is so much depth to this novel: Quinn’s struggle between following one’s dream and having a family, Belle’s attempt at healing from the crushing grief to find love again, Ona’s ruminations on the meaning what ‘home’ truly means.

The storyline is engaging but as is true with good literary fiction, the characters are the star of the show. Wood has created this brilliant boy, his father, and their mutual friend Ona as flawed human beings, each on their own journey to healing.  We learn about all the things that one person can be for another and how family is not always formed through blood or by marriage.In the end, it’s a story about love, humanity and our connection to one another.

If you enjoyed this book try:

  • A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
  • How it all began by Penelope Lively
  • The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce