I probably would never have picked this book up on my own. I have a bit of trepidation with books about homeschool--so far, I haven't been that comfortable with how homeschoolers are portrayed in various forms of media--and this one, with thirteen year old Capricorn Anderson being raised alone in a farm commune by his hippie grandmother, Rain, sounded like another book about some off-the-wall family that didn't represent at all what homeschool is like for most of us. But, it came highly recommended so I gave it a go.
I have to say, I ended up really liking it. It was fast-paced and all the characters seemed believable and vivid. The book is comprised of short segments from the perspective of various characters, from Cap himself to Mrs Donnelley, social worker who takes him in after Rain has to go to rehab from hip surgery (and who grew up on the commune herself until her parents decided they wanted a different life for their family); to some of the kids Cap meets when he starts 8th grade--Hugh, who was the bottom of the bottom until Cap became a bigger target; Zack, leader of the cool kids who gets Cap elected as 8th grade president just so everyone can make even more fun of him; Naomi, who likes Zack but starts to be won over by Cap's kindness and maturity in the face of cruel enmity. I devoured the book in an afternoon!
I appreciate that the book doesn't give easy answers, and that the characters all have complex thoughts and emotions. It's easy to see how much the middle school kids do, not based on their own convictions or sense of morality, but as some way to keep their heads above water in the cruel shark-tank they face Monday through Friday. It may not be right, yet they see it as survival, but the weird thing is that they are fighting amongst themselves (and, it could be argued, against the greater institute / adults that put them there) and perhaps it just takes someone from the outside to help them see it doesn't have to be that way. Cap is that person. Everything Rain taught him, all the hippie ideals of non-violence and "all you need is love", help him get through the bullying he experiences initially (if he even realizes it is bullying) and even attract some genuine friends.
I won't say more and spoil the story. As for the homeschool aspect, I do think Rain's methods are portrayed as unorthodox and not meant to reflect homeschoolers as a whole. It is interesting that we never get Rain's perspective, she is not one of the story's narrators. While certainly there are things to censure about raising a child so isolated from the rest of humanity, there is also much to admire about the way Rain raised Cap. He is a kind, gentle soul; he is thoughtful and selfless; he is in the top five percentile academically (they do have him take the standardized tests every year). Perhaps best of all, and what most homeschool parents would say is a primary goal in their decision to educate their children at home, is that Cap knows himself. And he stays true to himself, even when he faces a wider, and often hostile, world. And, while he may not be "social" in the same way that the middle school kids are, his brand of interacting with humanity is certainly much more effective.
I think the ending works well, allowing the characters to stay true to themselves without making the real world into a complete fantasy world. I do wonder if the transformation of the middle school kids was a bit idealized, but I liked the message. And while I had a difficult time identifying with a few of Cap's and Rain's struggles and decisions in the end, I can appreciate them and respect them. I also don't think the book fully condones or condemns either Rain's approach to education or that of public school, which, I think, makes this book appealing to a broader spectrum of readers.