Pay it Forward by Catherine Ryan Hyde Review

Catherine Ryan Hyde’s Pay It Forward takes as its premise the bumper-sticker phrase “Think Globally, Act Locally” and builds a novel around it. The hero of her story is young Trevor McKinney, a 12-year-old whose imagination is sparked by an extra-credit assignment in Social Studies: “Think of an idea for world change, and put it into action.” Trevor’s idea is deceptively simple: do a good deed for three people, and in exchange, ask each of them to “pay it forward” to three more. “So nine people get helped. Then those people have to do twenty-seven…. Then it sort of spreads out.” Trevor’s early attempts to get his project off the ground seem to end in failure: a junkie he befriends ends up back in jail; an elderly woman whose garden he tends dies unexpectedly. But even after the boy has given up on his plan, his acts of kindness bear unexpected fruit, and soon an entire movement is underway and spreading across America.Trevor, meanwhile, could use a little help himself. His father walked out on the family, and his mother, Arlene, is fighting an uphill battle with alcoholism, poor judgment in men, and despair. When the boy’s new Social Studies teacher, Reuben St. Clair, arrives on the scene, Trevor sees in him not only a source of inspiration for how to change the world, but also the means of altering his mother’s life. Yet Reuben has his own set of problems. Horribly scarred in Vietnam, he is reluctant to open himself up to the possibility of rejection–or love. Indeed, the relationship between Arlene and Reuben is central to the novel as these two damaged people learn to “pay forward” the trust and affection Trevor has given them.

Hyde tells her tale from many different perspectives, using letters, diary entries, and first- and third-person narratives from the various people whose lives Trevor’s project touches. Jerry Busconi, for example, the addict Trevor tried to help, one night finds himself talking a young woman out of jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge:

I’m a junkie, Charlotte. I’m always gonna be a junkie. I ain’t never gonna be no fine, upstanding citizen. But then I thought, hell. Just pay it forward anyway. Kid tried to help me. Okay, it didn’t work. Still, I’m trying to help you. Maybe you’ll jump. I don’t know. But I tried, right? But let me tell you one thing. I woke up one morning and somebody gave me a chance. Just outta nowhere. It was like a miracle. Now, how do you know that won’t happen to you tomorrow?

Pay It Forward is reminiscent of Frank Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Like the film, this novel has a steely core of gritty reality beneath its optimism: yes, one person can make a difference, can help to make the world a better place, but sickness, pain, heartache, and tragedy will still always be a part of the human condition. If at times Hyde stumbles a bit while negotiating the razor-thin line between honest feeling and sentimentality, it’s generally not for long. And the occasional lapse into artificially colored emotion can be forgiven when weighed against the courage it takes to write so unabashedly hopeful a story in such cynical times. –Sheila Bright –This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

An ordinary boy engineers a secular miracle in Hyde’s (Funerals for Horses) winning second novel, set in small-town 1990s California. Twelve-year-old Trevor McKinney, the son of Arlene, a single mom working two jobs, and Ricky, a deadbeat absentee dad, does not seem well-positioned to revolutionize the world. But when Trevor’s social studies teacher, Reuben St. Clair, gives the class an extra-credit assignment, challenging his students to design a plan to change society, Trevor decides to start a goodwill chain. To begin, he helps out three people, telling each of them that instead of paying him back, they must “pay it forward” by helping three others. At first, nothing seems to work out as planned, not even Trevor’s attempt to bring Arlene and Reuben together. Granted, Trevor’s mother and his teacher are an unlikely couple: she is a small, white, attractive, determined but insecure recovering alcoholic; he is an educated black man who lost half his face in Vietnam. But eventually romance does blossom, and unbeknownst to Trevor, his other attempts to help do “pay forward,” yielding a chain reaction of newsworthy proportions. Reporter Chris Chandler is the first to chase down the story, and Hyde’s narrative is punctuated with excerpts from histories Chandler publishes in later years (Those Who Knew Trevor Speak and The Other Faces Behind the Movement), as well as entries from Trevor’s journal. Trevor’s ultimate martyrdom, and the extraordinary worldwide success of his project, catapult the drama into the realm of myth, but Hyde’s simple prose rarely turns preachy. Her Capraesque themeAthat one person can make a differenceAmay be sentimental, but for once, that’s a virtue.