Pay it Forward pays off in the end


June 8, 2003, midnight | By Beth Gula | 21 years ago


The Movement is giving your new, sheepskin coat to a homeless man that you pass by one night in the cold. The Movement is signing your car over to someone whose own automobile breaks down during rush hour. The Movement that has spread across America, documented in Catherine Ryan Hyde's fictional novel Pay it Forward, is not about paying favors back, but rather showing the same compassion to another person that someone showed you. Essentially, the concept of "paying it forward" is romantic and implausible—a Movement that can exist only in fiction.

But in the end, that's why The Movement and the whole novel are so appealing. You love the notion precisely because it stems from the mind of a young child, and because it cannot exist in the reality of today's society. You love the chilling possibility that The Movement could be real, and that it is exactly what the world needs.

Trevor McKinney is a "very honest and direct" twelve-year-old who conceives of "paying it forward" for an extra credit project assigned by his social studies teacher Reuben St. Clair. The task is to think of a way to change the world in a positive way, and Trevor takes the assignment beyond a school activity in tireless efforts to spread his tiny seed of an idea.

The way Trevor sees the project, if one person performs three premeditated acts of kindness and pay it forward to three people, who each pay it forward to three people, the number of those involved would grow exponentially. Trevor's innocence is what sparks a phenomenon that slowly spreads from a California suburb to inner city Los Angeles and eventually to the East Coast.

Pay it Forward focuses on those closest to Trevor—mainly his recovering-alcoholic mother Arlene and his physically deformed teacher Reuben. Because Hyde plops readers directly into the lives of her protagonists and into The Movement with little introduction, the novel takes a little time to warm up. Eventually, these characters keep readers glued to the pages, because even though the plot is visionary, the people are not. They're flawlessly insecure, imperfect and real.

Hyde breaks down chapters in a unique format, changing the voice from first to third person, as well as adding excerpts from Trevor's diary, among other sources. These breaks make the story seem fresh as Hyde takes her time to slowly spin her web of personalities and events.

The novel is partially narrated by a former investigator, Chris Chandler, who traces the mysterious origins of The Movement back to Trevor. The prologue introduces the book as his chronicle of the transformation of Trevor's idea into The Movement, and selections from his interviews with those affected by The Movement appear throughout the novel. This premise sets an immediate, almost hokey tone to the book that is fortunately overcome by the genuineness of the various characters.

Pay it Forward is an easy read with an important message about relationships, family and following one's dreams. Through Trevor's consuming quest to achieve his goal of a better world, Hyde sets out the concept that truly cooperative local and global communities are possible, if only everyone could take a little step towards the ideal.



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Beth Gula. Beth Gula is junior in the Communication Arts Program, and she enjoys playing Blair soccer and lacrosse (yeah lax!). Reading, listening to music, and hanging out with friends are all ways she spends rare free time. Random favorites include Weezer, cheesecake, the Baltimore Aquarium, and … More »

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