Newton Newman is used to being invisible. His parents are forever caught up in work and his high school football star brother Chris is getting ready for the biggest game of the year. Most people seem surprised to discover Chris has a ten-year-old kid brother. Newton and his two best friends, JJ and Cecil, are the most ignored fourth graders at their school. Halloween is just around the corner and the three friends decide they’ve had enough of hand me down costumes and going as the same old things. They are going to be noticed. They are going to be who they really want to be–“their inner selves.”
Newt has no idea what he’s going to do for his costume. He has notebooks filled with villains and heroes he’s created, but they all have special abilities he can’t mimic, such as turning into wire. He shelves costume planning to attend the big game between his brother’s Fennimore Ferrets and the rival Merrimac team. Merrimac’s got the better record in the rivalry between the two teams, but Chris has given the Ferrets victory against Merrimac before. The game is a battle to the end, when a long play gives Fennimore a touchdown just in time.
But when the players come off the pile in the end zone, one player is not moving. That player is Chris. Heart pounding, Newt watches as his brother is loaded into an ambulance, unconscious. Not allowed to accompany Chris to the hospital, Newt is taken home by neighbors.
When JJ and Cecil arrive to trick or treat, they find Newt wearing half a drawer full of clothes handed down to him by Chris. Newt had been trying to his mom smile, but she left before she could see him all dressed up in Chris’s stuff (she had told Newt she missed Chris). JJ and Cecil help Newt cobble together a hero costume from sweatpants, part of a sweatshirt and a basketball jersey.
In his costume, Newt doesn’t feel so afraid. He feels confident, as if he actually were a hero. Pressed to come up with a name while trick or treating, Newt settles on Captain Nobody. In his costume, he is noticed, not ignored. Discovering the next morning that there are no other clean clothes in his room, Newt takes Captain Nobody to school.
Other kids stare and sneer. Newt’s teacher is taken aback. When he tells her his name, he ends up in the principal’s office briefly. The adults are very concerned with how he is acting, thinking he’s disconnecting after being traumatized by his brother’s injury. They let him keep the costume on, even addressing him as Captain Nobody, but they also call his parents.
Cecil gets caught up in the whole Captain Nobody thing. He brings walkie-talkies for Newt and JJ. He has Captain Nobody rescue a bass drum from the top of a huge garbage pile. Unexpectedly, this incident also gives Newt a chance to help an elderly man with dementia or Alzheimer’s home.
Captain Nobody has a talent for getting into situations because of his friends or bullies that also give him a chance to be brave. A mission to help a jewelery store fix the horrible grammar on its signs ends up giving the jeweler a chance to hit an alarm because a theft was in progress. When the football team mascot, a real ferret, runs out into the middle of a high way, it is up to Captain Nobody to rescue it.
I could well relate to parents who wanted to protect a child from a health scare. Newton’s parents are not telling much about Chris and the feeling of being useless is eating him up inside. He finds they are ripping out articles in the paper about his brother’s health so he doesn’t worry about what’s going on. Newt can’t visit Chris because more tests need to be done. How the parents try to protect Newt is sort of a role reversal in the family.
In many ways, Newt is the caretaker in the family. He took over breakfast duty from his absent minded mother. He’s the one that reminds her where Halloween is. He remembers all the very strange places things get filed in his house (housing contracts are in with cereal these days). Newt is very responsible in some ways, but in others he’s facing a lot of childhood worries and fears. Whenever anyone asks about Chris, he tells them his brother will be fine because that’s what he has to believe.
I loved the sibling bond in this book. Chris and Newt had certain rituals, such as how Newt would wake Chris up in the morning when he had trouble going (watch out for hoses!) and how Chris always told Newt there were monsters under his bed. I found it rewarding to read a book where the popular brother has a good relationship with the more overshadowed sibling.
I found this to be an engrossing read and its ending is sweetly done. The friendships felt strong between the three main kids. While some of the things Captain Nobody ended up doing required some suspension of belief, it was in keeping with the tone of the book. There are some interesting explorations of the consequences of rumors in the aftermath of big events. Some of the circumstances in the book, from the football injury to a brother to the uncertainty of the hospital to the feeling of being faraway and useless reminded me in some ways of Catherine Murdock’s YA The Off Season.