The title of Don Robertson’s The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread may make you think it’s the story of Matt Wieters, but it’s actually a remarkable coming-of-age novel set in Cleveland in 1944 on the day of the Cleveland East Ohio Gas Explosion.
The protagonist, nine-year-old Morris Bird III, decides to break with his quiet, slightly nerdy childhood routine one day to go visit a former schoolmate of his who moved to the other side of town. He comes up with a rather sophisticated plan to walk there, unwillingly taking his six-year-old sister with him, only to run into one of the largest industrial disasters in American history. What happens next, in maybe the last quarter or fifth of the book, is absolutely amazing, a brilliantly rendered portrait of heroism writ small against an unspeakably large tragedy. Robertson focuses on the little details – what Morris does, while heroic, isn’t huge or unrealistic, but still important, and Robertson imbues him with just one “super” power: the ability to think clearly in a crisis.
Robertson switches back and forth between narrative styles, from a straightforward prose/dialogue format to an almost modernist style where he shifts scenes and characters without so much as a paragraph break. These latter digressions are short, short enough that they didn’t drive me nuts, and the way he works in the creeping gas leak – as if the gas itself is just another character, wending its way through the gutters on its daily rounds – mimics the insidious nature of the threat, to which all the actors in the drama are oblivious until the explosion occurs.
Anyway, I know a few of you read this along with me, so rather than monopolize the topic, I’ll offer some discussion points. Feel free to add your own.
* Morris’ parents are little more than ciphers in the book; his father really only appears as a disembodied voice (a God symbol?) and his mother appears rather ineffectual in her brief cameos. Why?
* I thought of the red wagon as a symbol of Morris’ innocence, both for how it’s destroyed and, although this might be a bit cynical, how it’s obtained (or hard-earned).
* What’s the significance of Morris’s name? Morris, without a diminutive, is certainly a “grown-up” name. Does “Bird” just symbolize his flight across town, or is there more to it? And why would Robertson make him a “the third?”
* Am I the only one who found it odd that Edna Frost couldn’t think of an alternate spelling of Morris’ last name? It was the one off note in the book for me.
* Stephen King has apparently called Robertson one of his three greatest influences. For those of you who’ve read King’s work, did you see echoes of King in Sliced Bread?