Here at the Scenic-vu Motel. Thelma Hatch Wyss. Harper and Row, 1988. $11.95 154 pages.
"We seven Males and Females from Bear Flats are here at the Scenic-Vu Motel compliments of the Board of Education of Pine Valley School District. The only reason I am writing any of this down is because my senior English teacher assigned it . . . "The 10 families at Bear Flats, Idaho, had a problem. The Board of Education refused to provide a bus for the hour and a half drive twice a day for students to attend Pine Valley High School. Since no boarding houses were available for the "Bearflatters," motel rooms were provided four nights a week.
Now, this wasn't just any motel. It was Scenic-Vu Motel, "a crap motel," according to Jake Callahan's father. It was a motel with a view: "Directly in front of the neon sign a scrubby cedar tree stands alone in a patch of gravel. It tilts west, stunted no doubt by the neon rays. That lone tree could be the intended view, but then this place would have been named Cedar-Vu rather than Scenic-Vu . . . " The motel was next to "a yard of farm implements to the east and an empty lot of tumble weeds and sunflowers to the west."
It's a motel with a proprietor named Mrs. Matz: "Her bathrobe was held together with yellow duck safety pins. The pockets hung down from the bottom seams with things that should be in the pockets pinned on with more yellow duck safety pins: handkerchiefs, letters, cough drop boxes, elastic bands and reading glasses."
Perched on her head were her regular green plastic grasshoppers (hair curlers) "On her feet were fuzzy brown house slippers with plastic eyes on each side that rolled when she walked - like dark things expiring . . . "
So much for the motel. It's a "home on the highway." It could be a madhouse. Put any seven young people in such freedom to study or not, cook or eat junk food, free license on TV and it could be a madhouse.
But Scenic-Vu motel becomes home and Mrs. Matz becomes "mother" whether she likes it or not!
At least two things work well in this novel; characterization that tickles the funny bone as it warms the heart and descriptions and dialogue that could be made-to-order for a hilarious after-school special.
The characters? Jake Callahan is the center since the book is his journal as an English assignment. Jake, the senior student becomes "motel manager," chairman of the "Social Misfits," tutor, dietitian, rule maker ("Study Hard, Have Fun") and surrogate parent at PTA meetings. As he tells his story, Jake becomes wiser and more tolerant. While he's charged to manage the others, (because he is eldest and his younger brother is one of the group) he's also the insightful one. He understands his poet father, whose license to language is cluttered metaphor and hyperboles, and a phobic mother who lives "far from civilization." He understands the other "Dudes and Dudettes: Mona, Netty and Helen who have "yards of hair"; Martin who wears his cowboy hat to "keep his brain cells from wandering"; Drift, born in a car stuck in a snowdrift halfway between Pine Valley and Bear Flats and Jordy who asks, "If sometime this year I act like a regular person, rather than your little brother, do you understand?"
Through the course of a year's journal assignment, Jake learns to understand himself. He has been the "indispensable me" and in reflection, he's accomplished a lot; managed seven young lives, put them on the honor roll and graduated. That's quite an achievement for any high school boy who is not "one of the town kids."
His dreams of cruising Main Street in a Ford pickup with a town girl by his side didn't happen but reality says those values weren't as important as they once were.
The description and dialogue? Who cannot be captured with witty one-liners like that in a grocery store as the kids have the assignment to not buy junk food: "Follow a lady who looks like your mom and buy the same things . . . " or on the school bus: "Mr. Bernelli has not swept his bus since the board of education purchased it four years ago. I recognized school bulletins from my sophomore year. `Here's that release form my mom was supposed to sign two years ago' `I just found a poem I am going to turn in again . . . ' "
And while the seven students are a group, they have their idiosyncrasies. "He also has stinky feet, and he has to get up in the night to move his socks out of the room. He has to because we make him . . . " Or the girls who haven't learned the latest hair styles have " . . . bangs down over her glasses like roller blinds . . . "
"Here at the Scenic-Vu Motel" is a wholesome refreshing novel. What a treat to read a book for the 12- to 18-year-old without having to sidestep over sensationalized social illnesses that detail each `breakdown' or `breakup' in today's world. Nor does one have to pick through poorly placed expletives or slang used in poor taste. These things, which often clutter contemporary fiction for the young adult, just aren't here. The only thing dirty in "Here at the Scenic-Vu Motel" is Martin's socks and that is real to the top degree!
Marilou Sorensen is an associate professor of education at the University of Utah specializing in children's literature.