Soon-to-be-12-year-old Joel Gustafson thinks life in his small Swedish community is pretty simple in September 1957. And it is. Joel has his father, his friends and his school. But then The Miracle happens, and Joel needs to find a way to do a good deed to show his thanks.
Joel first appeared in A BRIDGE TO THE STARS, where he learned that his father Samuel was finally moving on to a new life and girlfriend Sara after Joel's mother Jenny left them years ago. He also met Gertrud, a woman with no nose (as a result of an operation). After he played pranks on her and she confronted him, he realized what an interesting person she really was and they became friends.
In this follow-up novel, Joel is run over by a bus but is perfectly fine. His bag could have pulled him under the wheels, but somehow he ended up positioned in such a way that nothing happened to him. Everyone around him is now staring at him and giving him hugs --- including Samuel, Sara, Gertrud and even his teacher, who he didn't think was capable of hugs. His father plays their favorite game of sea adventures with him and even gives him a picture from when Samuel was younger and a sailor.
It was a Miracle. Now Joel thinks his soul is in trouble, because he and his father are not religious, and he needs to offer thanks in some way. He resolves to do a great big good deed, but it's hard to determine what to do and who to help. His only two friends are Simon Windstrom, a lonely old man who is a bit crazy, and Gertrud.
Ultimately he decides to help Gertrud meet that special someone. He sees a handsome man at the bar where Sara works and begins sending him and Gertrud letters inviting each other to meet. When that doesn't work, Joel tries again; he does not want Gertrud to be lonely. A dance is coming up in their town, and Joel works to get Gertrud and the attractive stranger to meet there.
In the meantime, Joel is thinking hard about life, and about his mother. But his father doesn't want to answer any questions about Jenny. Does she think about Joel? Does she miss him? Does she wish she had never left? Some snooping uncovers a few answers but brings even more questions. After this, and when his plan to help Gertrud runs into problems, Joel realizes that some situations are better left alone.
What would you do if you almost died? Joel's approach to dealing with what happened to him is realistic. It's easy to relate to his questions about his place in the universe and where he came from, and a book that has no clear-cut answers is more interesting than one in which everything is laid out in a predictable way. Henning Mankell paints a vivid picture with eccentric but lovable characters in his novels. Joel has a good heart, even as he makes some mistakes.
--- Reviewed by Amy Alessio