This book is one of my holy grail books. I found it at the public library when I was in junior high and devoured it. Then it went out of print, and I spent the next few decades looking for it in used book stores, and bemoaning the fact that used copies were ridiculously expensive.
When I saw the re-release of Don Robertson's 1965 novel "The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread" at my local bookstore a few weeks ago, I'm pretty sure I squealed a little bit. Then I grabbed and took it to the nearest cash register. I didn't even bother to thumb through it. I didn't want to miss my chance to read it again. To my relief, it still does not disappoint.
The story is a standard hero's journey, with the unsuspecting hero being Morris Bird III, a nine-year-old boy in 1944 Cleveland. He's a regular kid, not horrible and not perfect, but even at his young age, he's done a few things he isn't proud of. When his teacher talks to the class about how satisfying it is to take on a difficult task and achieve it, Morris decides that this is how he can atone for his past shortcomings and achieve SELFRESPECT.
He decides to walk across town to see his friend who moved away. His plans are confounded before he even gets started, when his whiny little sister insists on tagging along. Not only that, but he has to spend half of his cash reserve to rent a wagon from one of his friends, and pull her the entire way. But his intention is to overcome obstacles, so he does it.
What Morris Bird III (as he is called throughout the novel) cannot anticipate is that the natural gas storage tanks on the other side of town, near his destination, are not as safe as they have been made out to be.
Since the information appears on the back cover blurb, and on the first page of the book, I don't believe it is a spoiler to tell you that his journey occurred on the same day as the Cleveland East Ohio Gas Explosion. What started out as a kid's walk to his friend's house becomes, in an instant, a very grown-up challenge for survival.
My most distinct recollection of reading this book as a teenager was the aftermath of the explosion. I would have sworn to you that the book was ABOUT the explosion. It's not. The explosion doesn't occur until four-fifths of the way through. It's about the boy, with a generous portion of seemingly unrelated people who will influence his journey.
Reading the book now, as an adult and a writer, I was fascinated to watch how cleverly Robertson lets the story unfold. It begins as a pretty standard "boy growing up back in the good old days" story. Then he begins to drop in other characters -- a young mother who is having an affair, a retired teacher, a legless man. Even the natural gas becomes a character, a liquid thread weaving through all of the other stories. My incompetent NaNoWriMo writer side appreciates the fact that characters are regularly referred to by names like "Morris Bird III" or "Miss Edna Daphne Frost", and that he can skillfully wander off on tangents, then still manage to steer everything back to the main story. It meanders sometimes, but always with a focus.
If you are looking for a hard-driving action- movie kind of story, steer clear of this book. "The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread" begs to be read on your patio on a lazy afternoon, when you can allow yourself to revisit childhood for a few hours. If there is a Young Adult reader in your sphere of influence, consider passing the book along when you are finished. We are never too young, or too old, to be reminded of the importance of selfrespect.