Sophie is off on an adventure. She’s sailing across the Atlantic with assorted uncles and cousins to see Bompie, her grandfather. It is her voice that brings us into the story and carries us through the first five chapters. But in Chapter Six, we switch narrators, to Cody, a cousin who is also on the journey. And through Cody we learn that perhaps there’s more to Sophie’s story than we may have originally thought.
As much as I love this book, it’s true that parts of it are very slow. There’s not necessarily a lot of action when they are first out at sea. Creech’s writing is beautiful, but that may not be enough to sustain young readers. But the mystery of Sophie is enough to keep you turning the pages even if the sailing talk doesn’t provide much excitement. And if you’re hooked on that, you’ll be around for when the action on the sailing trip gets dramatic.
This would be an amazing book to teach. Between the unreliable narrator (oh yes, I do believe Sophie would count as one), the different points of view and the amount of inferring you do in the early chapters to try to make sense of the story, it would be an excellent way to guide students through some more difficult thinking processes related to reading.
Additionally, there’s an interesting amount of thinking about gender roles in the book. Sophie is often interested in or doing tasks that are considered typically male. Cody is ribbed for performing and enjoying tasks that are perceived as female. Sophie admires how Cody handles this.
Age Recommendation: Although an advanced third grader might be able to read this, I think students in fourth grade and up would better be able to really understand the book. There is so much in The Wanderer that goes on in the background, that a reader who is only able to parse it at a literal level will miss much of the real meaning.
Sex, Nudity, Dating – Uncle Mo likes going shirtless. Cody and Brian spot some girls who they refer to as “babes” and “wildlife.” Sophie tells a story where a boy keeps his date out too late sometimes. Uncle Dock tells a story of a girl he once knew called Rosalie who ended up marrying someone else. Bompie’s letters tell of a girl he kissed and the day he met his wife. One of the uncles proposes to a woman.
Profanity – “heck,” “knuckleheaded doofus,” “stupid,” “ticked off,” “dumb,” “idjit,” “darn,” “shoot,”
Death, Violence and Gore – Fish must be caught, clubbed and gutted so that they can be eaten. There’s a fairly graphic description of killing fish, including slitting the throat and breaking the spine. A boy gets a whipping after he nearly drowns. We’re told that sea fleas would eat all the flesh off your skeleton if you fell in the water and weren’t rescued. A boy named Moses used to get beat up for his name. A woman they meet in their travels tells them about ghosts. One ghost is an old man and other is a woman and her baby. Cody’s father once removed his belt to whip Cody for crying. His mother intervened and got hit by the belt instead. Two of the uncles have a shoving match. A woman’s husband died. During the storm, Sophie is hurt. Cody ends up bleeding. Sophie tells a story of a little kid whose parents went to heaven. Other people tell stories of family members and boats lost at sea.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – None.
Frightening or Intense Things – Sophie tells stories about Bompie, most of which involve near drowning experiences. Sophie also talks about a “little kid she knows” who had to live with many different people who didn’t really want the little kid. The boat is caught in a dangerous storm while crossing. It’s bad enough that the adults make statements about how they can’t die like this.