Grateful American Kids

“Everything Else in the Universe”

by Tracy Holczer

Reviewed by Ed Lengel

New York: Puffin Books, 2019
New York: Puffin Books; reprint edition, 2019 (paperback)
288 pp. $7.99.

Scientists describe “homeostasis” as the process by which a living being maintains equilibrium within a changing environment. Greek in origin, it is another word for “steady,” or “same,” but for twelve-year-old Lucy Rossi, it defines the struggle to hold her balance in a turbulent world decimated by war. Survival, she eventually learns, is not to hold on, but to let go of the things she considers most dear.

Lucy’s big and boisterous family is as American as, well, pasta. Proudly Italian, they have brought their Old World traditions to San Jose, California, where they are pillars of the local community. It’s 1971, and the Vietnam War has opened terrible fissures in American society. For the Rossis, though, life continues as usual. Papo Angelo, Lucy’s grandfather, runs an Italian store that keeps the community supplied with delicious homemade meatballs; her grandmother, great-aunts and uncles spread their own form of benevolence in laughter, stories, and superstitions, and her Uncle G is the neighborhood mechanic. Each of them is always on the go.

So is Lucy’s father. He is a doctor who has been sent to Vietnam.

Separation breeds sadness and anxiety, which Lucy tries to control through what she calls her “homeostasis extravaganza.” Each day she dabs a little Aqua Velva on her wrists to recapture her father’s scent; she keeps a picture of the two of them by her bedside, to gaze at each night before bedtime. And, all day, Lucy carries ten stones in her pockets, sent by father. Often under stress, she reaches in and counts them; if they’re all there, she tells herself everything will be all right.

As Everything Else in the Universe begins, however, Lucy’s fragile equilibrium runs headlong into the inevitability of change. Her father is coming home three months early, minus an arm. And, as she will find out, he will be different–as he struggles to cope with his traumatic memories–and losses. The family embraces him with pride and ensures the community does too, throwing a massive welcome-home party; Lucy’s mother goes to work to give her husband time to adjust, but Lucy just wants everything to go back to the way it was–before the war. Only in time does she learn that’s impossible.

While Lucy tries to restore the bonds of love and understanding between her and her father, she discovers her world has changed, too. Working in her backyard wildflower garden, she meets a shaggy-haired, bespectacled boy named Milo Cornwallace, visiting from North Carolina. Together they accidentally discover a flight helmet buried years before along with family photographs and a Purple Heart medal. In their hunt to discover the identity of the helmet’s owner, they unravel more mysteries—including the story of Milo’s past. In the process, they share anger at an unjust world, grief, and discover friendship. As her understanding grows, Lucy acquires new strength by giving away her stones to those she loves–who need them more.

Everything Else in the Universe is a beautifully poignant novel, masterfully written and accurately capturing the historical time which it depicts. In many ways, Lucy’s journey parallels the Buddhist legend of the young prince who leaves his palace to discover that the real world is filled with suffering and loss, and endlessly tossed by revision. Lucy can never reconstruct the past, and once having given away her stones, it can never be recovered, but with compassion, letting go with ease, and discovering her inner strength, she releases a new pathway to love and healing.

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