*The Labors of Hercles Beal by Gary Schmidt

The title character of The Labors of Hercules Beal works through his grief by duplicating, in contemporary terms, the 12 “labors” of his mythical namesake.

*The Labors of Hercules Beal by Gary D. Schmidt. Clarion (HarperCollins), 2023, 347 pages.

Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 10-12

Recommended for: ages 10-15

When life is stupid

Sometimes, life is just stupid. Like when both parents are killed by a stupid drunk driver and your much-older brother (Achilles) has to give up his stupid D.C. apartment to come home to Cape Cod and take care of you and the family business, and the stupid family business is running Beal Brothers Nursery, which requires a lot of help from a 13-year-old. And on top of that, said brother decides to enroll you in Cape Cod Academy for Environmental Sciences rather than Turo Middle, where all your friends will be. And your homeroom teacher is a former Marine, whom you will address as Lieutenant Colonel Hupfer and who clearly will not tolerate fools or smart-alecks in the classroom.

It doesn’t help that Hercules Beal is named Hercules, which gives his teacher an idea for a special project during the fall unit on Greek mythology. During the semester, Hercules will find a way to adapt the 12 labors of the mythological Hercules to his own life, then write about what he learned from each one. So, slaying the Nimean Lion, cleaning out the Augean stables, cutting off the heads of the Hydra—What kinds of lions and hydras confront a present-day kid from Turo, Massachusetts? Plenty, as it turns out.

Hidden lions, unacknowledged sorrows

Hercules has been battling lions and hydras of depression and sorrow for months without entirely acknowledging it. The challenges forced on him by the school project—some of them kind of silly, and others rather harrowing—will uncover unacknowledged griefs but also springs of hope and joy. The discoveries will extend beyond himself to other people: his brother’s vampire girlfriend has wise words to say at the right time (and is not actually a vampire); his cranky neighbor comes through with help when it’s needed; a former rival becomes a present friend. And he’s blessed to live in the most beautiful part of the planet, reminded of it every morning with the sunrise over the dunes.

Gary Schmidt delivers some weighty themes with a characteristic light touch, pulling back shadows of grief to reveal the essential beauty of the earth and the goodness of life. His use of Hercules’ mythical labors is clever, as well as food for thought: what challenges in the reader’s life might be comparable? There are no direct references to God, and one to “the Universe” (when Hercules receives the gift of an ideal dog, it’s because “the Universe owes me” a favor), but astute readers should recognize Providence when they see it.

Considerations

  • One misuse of God’s name.
  • It’s not clear if the “vampire” is living with the Beal brothers—no direct references to her spending the night but she’s there most of the time. And when she and Achilles become engaged they go to Hawaii together to meet her parents.

Overall Rating: 4.5

  • Worldview/moral value: 4
  • Artistic/literary value: 5

Read more about our ratings here.

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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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