September 10, 2020

The King of Jam Sandwiches

Written by Eric Walters
Orca Book Publishers
312 pp.
Ages 8-12
September 2020

This was a difficult story for me to write because it's so personal. Many of the things I've written about are from my life. The question I'm already being asked is, How much of this is true? The answer is simple–too much and not enough. 
(From Author's Note

So begins The King of Jam Sandwiches, the story of thirteen-year-old Robbie whose familial circumstances have compelled him to take on adult responsibilities and worries far beyond his years, reminding all readers that even the most unbelievable of situations can be a child's reality.

Since his mother and grandparents have passed, Robbie only has his father, a man whose erratic behaviours shout of bipolar disorder, swinging between fears for his imminent death, hoarding food supplies and disappearing for days. Though he has an Uncle Jack and Aunt Cora, Robbie is always told that he'll be going into foster care if anything happens to his dad. So Robbie is the one steady element in his family. He cares for his dog, Candy; he does the laundry, if there's detergent; he peels potatoes when he gets home from school; and he works part-time at a butcher shop, though his father doesn't want him taking food, as charity, from the kindly Mr. and Mrs. Priamo. But Robbie does more than just endure and persevere. He makes plans and he has ambition.  Working hard to earn good grades and save his money, Robbie has a plan to get out from under his father and escape, ultimately going to university.
If you're broken and you know it, you have to get up every day and work harder and longer than everybody else if you want to get anywhere. (pg. 298)
Then Robbie meets Harmony, a new student. An enigma of brashness and hopelessness, Harmony is living with her newest foster family and counting on being reunited with her mother who has been in and out of rehab.  While Robbie feels that he has to prove himself, Harmony accepts his daily jam sandwiches as tasty, not humiliating; helps him buy some new, though heavily discounted, clothes that fit; and finds a way for him to do something fun like basketball. Robbie may not want to admit to anyone that they are poor and that his father is a negligent parent, feeling like this is the life he deserves, but Harmony, in her convoluted style, makes sure that he knows otherwise. 

I am loathe to call The King of Jam Sandwiches a coming-of-age story because, sadly, Robbie and Harmony have been adults for years.  They've carried burdens that children should not. They are the parents in their lives, looking after the adults who have failed to be parents. They live disquieted lives, never knowing when danger might arise or when the flimsy stability they've create for themselves might dissipate. And Eric Walters establishes that precariousness of reality from the onset and throughout The King of Jam Sandwiches. There is no respite from the poverty or the instability. There is only survival, physical and emotional, and the reader's hope that Robbie and Harmony get through it. (The author's "Post Note" reassures that they do.)

The King of Jam Sandwiches is a tough read because no one wants to think about children suffering. But The King of Jam Sandwiches is reality for many children, and while telling us about his own childhood wrapped in Robbie's story, Eric Walters has given voice to children who, like Robbie, don't think they deserve better or that they count. They do. They are the royalty of their own realities and, if they can get the support they need and want, they may even come to recognize that,
"You already are somebody." (pg. 115) 

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