As soon as I read the blurb for Stuck on Earth, by David Klass (2010, Farrar Straus Giroux, YA, 227 pages), I added it to my list. As the only blogger (as far as I know) who features an orange space snail (if you look at it just right) in her header art (edited to add: the snail is no more. I have moved on....), how could I pass on a book that was actually about a space snail?
Ketchvar, the space snail in question, has been sent to planet Earth to make a determination about the future of the human species--will humanity end up destroying their home, or is their hope for them? If the former, then it's bye bye homo sapiens, because another alien race is about to loose their own planet through no fault of their own, and they have their hearts set on moving to a (humanity free) Earth....
So Ketchvar carefully inserts himself into the brain of a randomly chosen 14 year old boy, Tom Filber, and begins to observe life on Earth. But his mission is less straightforward than he had hoped. From one of his transmissions back to mission control:
"Revered Elders, I fear we may have randomly selected a family that is not representative of the human condition. I suggest a team of GC analysts immediately go to work on the question of whether all human families are this miserable and dysfunctional, or if I had the bad luck to hop off our spaceship into a loony bin of a household." (page 117)
Truly Tom's life is terrible. His mother is volatile and abusive, his father is unemployed and drinking too much, his sister hates him, and (even before the arrival of the Space Snail) he was nicknamed Alien at school, and bullied something fierce. It wouldn't be surprising if a boy like Tom, imaginative, sensitive, and pushed over the edge, began to fantasize that he really was an alien...and gradually Ketchvar, lost in the unhappiness of Tom's life, begins to wonder if he himself is real, or simply a coping mechanism.
But, whether Ketchvar is real or not, he is a different person than the Tom of a few days before. He is a Boy/Space Snail who is able to take risks with the people around him (including the girl next door) and who may actually be able act heroically (with help from Ketchvar's alien abilities), taking on the mega-company that is poisoning his town's river.
Ketchvar's unique perspective on teenage life in America is by turns poignant and humorous, and the story is given further punch by the element of doubt that gradually creeps in. I generally prefer to know it if the narrator is a delusional figment or a real entity, but here the uncertainty worked beautifully, underlining the lack of hard and fast solutions to the problems of Tom's life. As Michelle (the girl next door) puts it: "I'm starting to like you," she confesses, "and I"m not sure whether I'd rather have you turn out to be a crazy boy or a perfectly sane snail creature." (page 175)
In the end, Ketchvar's gone, Tom's still stuck on Earth, and the reader is free to believe or not. But regardless Klass has managed to bring the misery of the Tom's life in the first part of the book to a satisfying place of hope.
Science-fiction fans may feel a bit betrayed that they can't quite believe in Ketchvar (or maybe they will choose to ignore the possibility that he is unreal). But I can't imagine this book not striking a chord with the young reader who feels like an alien navigating a hostile planet...and wondering if it is worthwhile to Try...