Bray, Libba. Going Bovine. Ember, 2009. 480p. Grades 8 and up. Realistic Fiction. (2010 Printz Award).
Cameron Young is a typical, disaffected seventeen year old from a small Texas town with one slight exception—he’s just been diagnosed with Creutzfeld-Jakob variant BSE, more commonly known as mad cow disease, and he only has a short time to live. While in the hospital, Cameron meets (or hallucinates) the punk angel Dulcie who instructs him that he can save his own life (and the world) by journeying on a quest to find the mysterious Dr. X. Joining him on this journey are his high school classmate Gonzo, a dwarf with a video game obsession and an over-bearing mother, and Balder, a Norse god trapped inside the statue of a garden gnome. Bray’s brash reimagining of Don Quixote leads readers on a mind-trippingly surreal journey to discover what’s real, what’s important, and how to live an authentic life even in the midst of chaos.
Thoughts- There is no delicate way to put it—this book f***ed with my brain. Much like its narrator Cameron (and I’m sure intentionally on the part of the author), I had a difficult job separating reality from fantasy, and I spent so much time flipping back and forth trying to figure out if Cameron is hallucinating or if he’s really on this trek that Going Bovine was slow, slow reading for me. I frequently think that about Bray’s writing, but usually the narrative pace picks up for me about half-way through and I just blast all the way to the end. Not so much here. I really, really struggled through this novel. With that said, I also LOVED it by the time I reached the end, and I totally felt like I had been on Cameron’s quixotic journey right alongside him.
In addition to Bray’s pacing, I also found Going Bovine to be chock-full of her characteristic humor, satire (especially about the testing situation in public schools and consumerism), and poignant themes wrapped in absurd packaging (Balder the garden gnome, anyone?). I typically do not like to read books written in present tense because they feel too much like screenplays to me, but given the first-person narration and the narrator’s unique physical state and mental condition, I think the tense works here and was Bray’s only choice. Cameron dies at the end of the book, and unless he was narrating from heaven, it had to be written in present tense. My biggest concerns were the character of Dulcie and the omnipresent allusions to Don Quixote—she was kind of annoying and I had to google A LOT about Quixote—and I think teen readers might feel the same way.
My research about this book shows that readers either love it or hate it. I definitely fall into the “love” category, but I do see where the haters are coming from. It is a tough, demanding read, and Bray expects a lot out of her audience. For me, that “work” definitely had a payoff, but I understand those readers who are just put off by the absurdity and sheer weirdness of the book. While this polarizing nature limits the readership of Going Bovine, I think those readers who make it to the end feel, much like Cameron, somewhat enlightened by their journey.