The Bullies and Me (Harriet Savitz)

Harriet May Savitz | January 1991 | 107 pages
Harriet Savitz | January 1991 | 107 pages

There are some books that, no matter what happens, stay with you for a lifetime. Maybe it’s for a captivating storyline, or characters you deeply identified with. Maybe it’s the prose or the way the writer made you feel. Maybe it’s for purely sentimental and nostalgic reasons. And that rereading that book takes you back to a simpler time in your life. It is, in essence, something closely akin to your very own personal time machine. Video games do that for me. Movies. Music. And books. One book that has resonated with me throughout the years for all the reasons listed above is an obscure little Apple Scholastic Paperback (remember those from the early-mid ’90s?) by the name of The Bullies and Me. It’s a simple book, but it’s a damn good one. I recently reread it earlier this month for the first time in nearly 25 years. It has definitely stood the test of time. I cannot wait to pass this title down to my kids one day.

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The year was 1995. I was on the verge of graduating elementary school and I had the world at my fingertips. I was never the coolest kid, but I had a close circle of friends, I had a loving family for the most part and I was ready to tackle the treacherous waters that was junior high. Before graduation my best friend Nelson randomly handed me this book one day.

“Hey Steve, check this book out. I just finished it and it’s pretty good. Feel free to keep it, actually.”

“Oh, cool, man. Thanks. I’ll read it at some point.”

Nelson and I went on to graduate. It was off to middle school in the fall of 1995.

And then one day in January of 1996, my parents gave me the devastating news that we were moving. Not terribly far away, but enough to change life forever. A few days ago it was the 25th anniversary of that move. It blew my mind. Time flies. Hell, January is a wild month for me personally. RVGFanatic turned 14 years old on January 7. On January 17, I celebrated 15 years since I got back into the Super Nintendo. All of this feels like a lifetime ago. But I digress.

I did not transition to my new town nor my new middle school with flying colors. It took me at least a year to adjust and finally find my legs. I remember being so terribly lonely, missing my best bud Nelly and my old hometown. The one I grew up in and called home for over 10 years of my 12 year old life. And that’s when one day I spotted Nelson’s copy of The Bullies and Me just lying there in my closet. I remember thinking that this was the closest link to Nelson and so I took the book to school. I began to read it and it was scary how similar the main character Allan and I were. I felt the book was written specifically for me. It was exactly what I needed to read during that critical time of transition. The Bullies and Me exemplify how literature can change our lives for the better. Because of this book, I was able to move on with my life and make the most out of what I perceived, at the time, to be a less than ideal situation. Thank you Nelson, and thank you Harriet Savitz.

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The story opens with one of the book’s main set pieces, Silver Lake. This is where the birds and ducks call home. Tony and Pete love to scare them. As you might guess, they are the bullies in the story. But initially, they are “friends” with Allan.

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Unbelievable, I remember thinking, as I read this for the first time after moving in early 1996. I moved in the middle of 7th grade, while Allan moved right before 6th grade. Hey, close enough! Immediately, I felt a kinship with the guy. My man!

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Allan’s best friend back in his old hometown of Mapletown is David. David in my mind immediately became Nelson. For many mornings in 1996, I too had an ache in my stomach. I knew exactly how Allan felt.

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Grandmom plays an important role in this story. She too is having a difficult time adjusting, but for different reasons. Her husband passed away and similar to Allan, she is grieving her loss and “stuck in the past” as well.

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This was basically me for the first half of 1996. 25 years ago now. Jesus Christ!

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Oh man, another passage that I recall totally hitting me in the feels. I kept thinking no one in my whole 7th grade class understood how great it was to live in my old hometown.

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The first two sentences above have always stuck with me. I just love how those sentences take me back to all those glorious spring and summer childhood days that seemed to stretch on forever. In fact, here’s how much of an influence this book has made on me: I’ve copied those exact two sentences over the years!

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See the second paragraph in the picture above. Sound familiar? I don’t mean to copy but those are two of my favorite sentences I’ve ever read in a book.

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One day, while hanging out with Tony and Pete at Silver Lake, Allan finds himself in a bit of a tight spot. Tony and Pete start throwing rocks at the birds. Allan doesn’t want to, but Tony calls him out. Hesitantly, Allan begins to throw rocks too. But he aims to miss while the boys try to go for the kill. It isn’t long before one of the rocks hits one of the birds. Allan isn’t sure if it was his rock or Tony’s or Pete’s that struck the bird, but he is instantly remorseful. The last sentence above is particularly haunting. “All the way home I wondered which stone, and was I the one who threw it.” Simple yet so powerful in conveying how important it is to say NO when pressured to do something you know is wrong or that you don’t wish to do.

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It’s funny how the things we try to hide have a way of coming back to us. Allan finds this out firsthand when Grandmom brings up the topic of the snowbirds. As always, Grandmom is wise. I love how realistic these characters are. The way they speak and interact with one another makes them feel like they could be any family in any neighborhood. Hell, maybe even your very own.

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Throughout the book David and Allan talk on the phone. These parts were great because it felt a lot like Nelson and me speaking over the phone.

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We’re soon introduced to Alexander, or Flute. Flute plays in the school band. Tony and Pete love to rag on “The Bandies” as they call them, and Allan is left in an awkward position. He twists the truth and denies his slowly budding friendship with Flute. Again, like a lot of 11 year old boys would do in Allan’s shoes.

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Back at home we learn Grandmom used to be a librarian and owns a shit ton of books. The ironic thing is now I have a shit ton of books, too. I suppose I’ve gone from being Allan to being Grandmom… :P

How can I say no to badass covers like this?
How can I say no to badass covers like this?

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I love Grandmom’s response to Allan’s question, “Are you cold?” The woman simply answers, lost in her books and reminiscing, “My memories keep me warm.” The rest of the scene plays out as awkwardly as it would in real life. If I were Allan, I wouldn’t know what to say either, except to eventually find a way to say bye and take my leave.

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Issues continue to crop up at home, and not just for Allan. His mom and Grandmom have a little argument, and Allan’s mom laments the fact that if only Grandpop were still around then things would be a whole lot better for all.

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Meanwhile, David and Allan have planned an epic sleepover. Horror movies and video games galore. It was going to be a glorious weekend. Unfortunately, David calls the day of to report that he’s terribly ill. Allan suggests maybe David could visit him tomorrow, but David knows he won’t recover by then. What else could go wrong?

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I love how straight to the point and real the dad’s question is. “Are you sorry we moved here?” I can’t tell you how many times I wanted my own dad to ask me that. But we never were very good at talking like this. He went to work, made the money to pay the bills, put food on our table and clothes on our backs. I must have read this specific passage a thousand times… and imagined my own dad and me having this conversation. It always ended the same way, too… with my dad saying he thought he was doing the right thing for all of us. Somehow, as strange as it may seem, that always brought me a little bit of extra comfort.

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I just love Allan. He has such great heart and character, even if at times he does succumb to peer pressure. The last line here is very touching. I know he would rather lose every model car in his precious collection than ever hurt Snowbird one bit.

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Once again, Tony is being a prick to the ducks and birds at Silver Lake. But this time, Allan stands up to Tony because he knows that standing by idly is just as bad as if HE himself were the one throwing the stones.

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But Tony is the kind of guy to forget that you stood up to him. So the next day it’s as if nothing ever happened at Silver Lake. And once more, Allan finds himself living a double life of sorts. The book perfectly depicts the hardship (relatively speaking) of not knowing for sure who to eat with at lunch, and how we often place high value in how others perceive us. There seems to be a big part in many of us to uphold a certain image, even if it doesn’t project who we really are on the inside. Thankfully, as we grow up, things like this become a little easier to handle as we learn to not give a fuck. Or at least, not nearly as much as when we were in our formative years!

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Later that weekend, unbeknownst to his parents, Allan decides to take the bus to make the 90 minute trek over to his old hometown. This is one of my favorite parts of the book. I am not ashamed to admit that I lived vicariously through Allan, and his old stomping grounds became mine.

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Oh how life imitates art. Little did I know reading this back in 1996 that 10 years later, in 2006 I would visit my childhood home with the same exact feelings. Hell, I even went back inside for the first time in 10 years! At the time my parents were renting our old house to some tenants. I wasn’t close with them but they knew me, so the lady let me in to use the restroom and reminisce. That night (January 26, 2006) marked 10 years since I’d moved. I’d stopped by the local Game Crazy at my childhood Hollywood Video just down the ol’ block to pick up a few Super Nintendo games prior to coming. It felt as if I was going back home to play SNES games with Nelson. It was one of those weird and magical nights… the ones that go on to be fondly remembered forever.

Heading back to the old stomping grounds
Heading back to the old stomping grounds
10 years to the day since I moved... I had to return
10 years to the day since I moved… I had to return
Lotsa memories...
Lotsa memories…
I'll never forget the drive home that night
I’ll never forget the drive home that night
I used to walk here ALL the time as a kid
I used to walk here ALL the time as a kid
From across the street. Damn glorious times
From across the street. Damn glorious times

And you want to know the craziest “life comes full circle” thing of it all? Back in September of 2020, my wife and I moved into that same exact childhood home. My dad gave the tenants from 1996 the heads-up, they moved out in July and for the whole month of August we renovated the old place. It cost me $60,000 — but to get a house “for free” and not just any house but MY OLD HOUSE… that’s priceless. Crazy how life works out sometimes, eh?

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Back at the ranch, Allan’s trip down memory lane hits a snag and goes slightly awry. He tries to surprise visit David, but of course David is not home. Not only that, but he is out kicking it with Jimmy Burns. Allan can’t help but feel disappointed. You feel him going from the highest of highs at the beginning of his odyssey… to the lowest of lows within a single page. Tough shit, kid.

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Back at school, Allan once again finds himself in the throes of cafeteria conundrum. Harriet Savitz perfectly conveys the immense pressure of the middle school lunchroom. It can be as savage as a jaguar-infested jungle or shark-infested waters. OK, not really, but when you’re 12 or so, it can sure seem that way sometimes. BTW, another great description by Savitz in the last paragraph above. Really paints a vivid picture, pardon the pun!

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Another phone call attempt to his best friend David that ends in futility and bitter disappointment. I bet ‘cha David’s with that prick, Jimmy Burns. What a bitch.

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As stated earlier, Allan is such a likable and relatable character. He’s not perfect; he makes his share of mistakes but he has a good heart. This example above helps to solidify that. He could have gone with the model car — which he wanted so badly to add to his collection — but instead he went for the bear because Beth had failed at winning it previously. Good guy Allan. A sweet and selfless moment indeed.

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The 3 pictures above display BY FAR my favorite part of The Bullies and Me. When I first read this 25 years ago in 1996, it helped to bring clarity and light to my own similar situation. I read it a thousand times to let Grandmom’s epiphany sink in even further. I love how she changes and realizes that she can’t spend the rest of her life stuck in the attic looking at old things. How she had to make a decision whether to spend the time she has left looking back in the past, or to move forward. That last line is intensely introspective, and powerful: “While I watched Grandmom stack the books, one pile for the library, one pile for her, I wondered if I was doing the same thing, looking back too much and not moving forward.”

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We all have watershed moments in our lives. The day our braces come off. The day we graduate from college and enter the working force. The day we decide to be partners with someone for the rest of our lives. Following that “come to Jesus” talk with Grandmom, Allan experiences another watershed moment. Earlier in the story Tony visits, sees Allan’s old teddy bear and beats the poor thing up. But when Flute visits, he just gets it. And that’s when Allan gets it, too. People like Flute and Beth are his real friends. They’re good people and they care for him just like how true friends ought. Unlike Tony and his lackey, Pete. So fuck those guys. And fuck Jimmy Burns as well.

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Now hurling toward the climax, Flute and Allan find Tony and Pete throwing rocks at the ducks and birds. Those assholes. Flute and Allan don’t need to utter a single word, they know what’s up. They know what’s about to go down…

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Allan tussles with Tony and at last bests the bully. Before the bullies leave the scene of the crime, Tony declares a harrowing threat: “What ‘cha gonna do, sit here with Flute and guard the ducks all day?” Allan hates to admit the truth but realizes that Tony’s right. Maybe Snowbird, Evelyn, Big Al and all the others can no longer be safe at Silver Lake. Shit. What CAN he do??

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BOO-YAH! That’s what he can do. Actually, it’s Grandmom who helps to make this happen. After speaking with Councilperson Roberts (or the mayor, anyhow), there are now signs posted at Silver Lake to help keep the creatures safe. Take that, Tony — ya fucking bastard!

;)
;)

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Things wrap up nicely. The creatures of Silver Lake are now safe and Allan no longer has to worry about them or the bullies. It also looks like Allan will finally get that epic sleepover weekend with David after all, and this time with Flute included. Allan grows up quite a bit over these 107 pages. He comes to realize the true meaning of friendship, stands up for what he believes is right even in the face of danger, and learns to make the most out of his present situation. All lessons that anyone can absorb and be all the better for it. It is a perfect and satisfactory conclusion. Like a lovely bowtie on a well wrapped Christmas gift!

CLOSING THOUGHTS

My Amazon review from 20+ years ago!
My Amazon review from 20+ years ago!

It blows my mind that it’s been 25 years since I moved. It blows my mind even further that my wife and I are now living in my old childhood home. It’s crazy that RVGFanatic has been around in cyberspace for 14 years now. Was it really 15 years ago that I got back into all things Super Nintendo? How time flies. And speaking of anniversaries, The Bullies and Me quietly celebrated 30 years earlier this month. I read it recently again and it’s held up well. Its lessons and messages still stand the test of time. It’s one of my all-time favorite books, not just for sentimental reasons. In a brief 107 pages, Harriet Savitz wrote a masterpiece for any kid who has ever had to endure the hardship of moving. And how, no matter how bleak at times that things may seem, we always have the power to make our lives as positive and happy as we deem it to be.

5Stars

2 thoughts on “The Bullies and Me (Harriet Savitz)”

  1. The snowbird story reminds me of another coming-of-age book that I recently re-read, called One-Eyed Cat by Paula Fox. It’s about an eleven-year-old boy who deals with the immense guilt of (possibly) injuring a neighborhood cat with a BB gun.

    My sixth-grade teacher assigned our class to read it, but I was far too hyper and distracted to appreciate it. I found a copy in the local take-one/leave-one and decided to give it another shot. I was surprised at just how melancholy it was. It’s also very sweet and dreamlike though, and I think you might like it.

  2. Fantastic review Steven! Brought back so many relatable memories on coping with moving on like you broke down! That is awesome to hear how you’re back in your childhood home! What are the odds!?

    Ironic how you bring up revisiting old neighborhoods too. Part of a pandemic routine for me on my night off work to kill time is going out for a drive around the outskirts of town and pumping some tunes for a little while. Last week, on my way back home from this drive something clicked and I decided to do a leisurely drive along the old path I would walk to middle school for a couple years and kind of just took it in. Not trying to cling on to the past, but was kind of like one of those surprise anniversary refreshers like you elucidated on in 2006.

    Thank you very much for sharing this book and review!!!

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