The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman
Puffin Books, 2011
“He was here not only because of his fingertips…The truth was that he loved Scrabble now.”
Rating: 4/5 stars
The book cover is great. Seriously, if I will have a Best Book Cover of the Year list, this book would take home the bacon. And the eggs. But that is not the reason why the book is worth a read. Let’s see: one, it has the stories of three children; two, it tells you about Scrabble; three, it has the tournament ala Ghost Fighter (I’m exaggerating here); and four, the powerful fingertips of Duncan Dorfman. How can it be cooler than that?
What fingertips I am talking about? So here’s the story. The book tells us about the lives of three 12-year olds who came to the Youth Scrabble Tournament (YST) with their own goals in mind. April, wants to prove to her family that Scrabble is indeed a sport (is it?), Nate, meanwhile, wants to bring back the lost glory of his dad (who was defeated on the final round many years ago), and Duncan (Dorfman, yes), came to prove that he is special. And he is, because he can read even with his eyes closed. And well, of course, it is handy when picking letters in Scrabble.
April’s character is somehow ordinary, the kind that you will read in many of today’s books. She’s a brilliant girl with family issues but not too nerdy. What I noticed about her story is that her family (all obsessed sports fans) is kind of ridiculous when you read them, bordering comedy. I mean it is one thing to contrast a girl who loves to play Scrabble against her family of overachievers in sports but to have them actually obsessing about it (all them exercising in the morning? Come on), is way too much.
The only brilliant twist, spot or whatever you want to call it, in her character’s story is the mystery guy she was looking for in about three years since they met and played scrabble together. But this storyline did not line up with the major plot of the story and that keeps me wondering why bother write it in the first place.
Nate’s character, meanwhile, is somehow unique and interesting. His story fits perfectly well with the plot. He has this father who, along with his partner, lost in the finals of the tournament years ago, and that he wants his son to win for him so that he could move on. Nate is home-schooled but he wants to be a normal child, attending a normal school. I do not know why he bothers; he’s got a skating rink inside his house for goodness sake. But he likes to attend this school with this cool skater girl that’s why he wants to win in the tournament: to have his father let go of him and his obsession with winning in Scrabble.
Duncan is a dork. His story is one of many stories about kids who do not realize that they are special in their own ways. He’s not good at anything (or so we’re told) and that’s why when he discovered this “special power” he grabbed the opportunity to use it and make himself stand out from students who make his life miserable, to help his mom and get a house of their own. Pretty straight forward really.
The way Wolitzer spent her time in developing his character is evident in how Duncan thinks. His thoughts are way deeper than the other two characters (although Nate’s not bad). His story fits too with the plot: no father, living with her grand-aunt, bullied, stuff like that. But it gets weirder by the end of the story. Yikes.
The Youth Scrabble Tournament
What I especially like about this book is how it discusses Scrabble and the words you have to learn to be able to be good at it (the list of two-letter words, BETSY’S FEET, the bingo stem SATINE, and of course the bingo-bango-bongo). How many books tackle Scrabble, and narrates it like that? This is the reason why this book is unique and enjoyable to read. Even if you do not like to play this board game, (I know some of you were lost in those bingo thing I mentioned), I swear by the end of the book, you will at least try to play one game.
The tournament makes the book more thrilling, with rounds after rounds of Scrabble culminating to the finals rounds broadcast live (in Thwap! TV). What with Duncan’s “power” that part is sure interesting to read, worth more than a letter K, or Z, or Q.
The story is simple but well-structured, even if it has some little power thing going on, it still keeps its story real. It is so simple it will charm the readers enough that they will not care if the story in the end gets a little weird kind of like a teledrama, something a Filipino writer would create.
I like what Rebecca Stead (author of When You Reach Me), said about the book; “a magical journey of words spelled out and words that need to be said.” The book presents a lot of modern day problems of kids nowadays, and how to solve some of it; the challenges and decisions you need to face even as a kid, and also how parents could respond and help their children navigate such challenges. There is something deeply satisfying in reading this book, a word you could not pull out in a bag of letter tiles and place in a Scrabble board.