Wersba, Barabara - The Dream Watcher (London, Longman Young Books, 1969, 171pp)
If there was ever a case to be made for not judging a book by its cover then this one is it. Despite sporting an ugly bright pink cover adorned by an atrocious and out of proportion line drawing this is actually one of the better teen novels of the era. Why the publishers thought that commissioning such a monstrous cover would do anything other than condemn this book to obscurity is far beyond me, but nevertheless I’m glad I took a peek inside as the contents definitely transcend their container.
A fairly quick and easy read The Dream Watcher tells the tale of a slightly cracked and painfully naive young man trapped by the conformity and ambitions of his suburban surroundings. Obsessed by books, gardening and of all places New Zealand he is obviously intelligent, but unable to succeed at school due to it’s prison like mentality. Socially ostracised because of his unpopular interests and scornful of the hip scene for enforcing its own set of conventions he finally finds liberation through his friendship with an eccentric old woman living in a world of fantasy. There are shades of Harold and Maude here without a doubt, but whilst the novel shares that film’s wry appeal and wit its protagonist’s origins are ordinary enough for any black sheep to relate to.
As a coming of age story The Dream Watcher simply out ranks most of its contemporaries thanks to its originality and the fact that surprise, surprise it’s actually funny. Whilst most of the books written for adolescents were dull and worthy Wersba goes to the trouble of developing interesting characters rather than just using them as shallow ciphers for whatever message she was keen on pushing. Don’t get me wrong, there is an obvious message here (be yourself and like it) and even a vaguely feel good ending, but it’s conveyed in such a manner as to rise above the usual cliches.
"To tell you the truth I wasn’t having a very good time. Everybody was different and all, but I had no idea how to meet them. Then I saw a coffeehouse that had a sign outside that said "Happening Tonight." I had read about Happenings in Life magazine and was sort of curious to see one. So I went inside with my paper flower and sat down at a table. It was so dark that I couldn’t see the menu for about five hours and when I did it was all written in Italian. I didn’t know what to order, but finally ordered something called a Cappuccino which turned out to be coffee and cost a dollar.
Well the place got very crowded with these hippie people in blankets and then all the lights suddenly dimmed- as if they weren’t dim enough- and this incredible movie projection flashed on the wall. It was a heart operation and you could see the heart jumping around with various hands reaching into it. Which was really unpleasant. Then this radio static came on very loud and some insane guy began to run through the audience. Boy, was he a mess. He was half naked and dirty and stank to high heaven. I thought he was going to do something, but all he did was climb up on a ladder and close his eyes. Then a girl with silver hair walked out holding an alarm clock. The clock rang its alarm and she jumped on it till it was broken. Next a little kid came out and poured a bucket of red-white-and-blue spaghetti on the flour. Meanwhile this radio static was blaring and the heart operation was still going on. The girl with the silver hair lay down on her back and said the word "usury" five times. Then the little kid covered her with a blanket and the lights came on again and it was over. Boy, was I disappointed. I mean you could be absolutely certain that something had happened, but I didn’t know what it was." (pp 39- 40)