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Orbiting Jupiter Summary, Characters and Themes

Orbiting Jupiter is a young adult novel by Gary D. Schmidt. It tells the story of Joseph, a teenage father placed in foster care with a family in rural Maine.

The narrative explores themes of love, loss, forgiveness, and the enduring power of family bonds. Through Joseph’s journey, the book dives deep into the complexities of his past and his hopes for the future, offering a moving portrayal of resilience and the search for belonging.

Summary

Jackson “Jack” Hurd lives with his parents on a farm in Maine. 

Their lives take a significant turn when they decide to foster Joseph Brook, a 14-year-old boy with a troubled past. Joseph, who recently attacked a teacher at his juvenile detention home and has an infant daughter named Jupiter whom he has never met, arrives at the Hurd farm withdrawn and easily startled.

The day after Joseph’s arrival, Jack and Joseph walk to school together, arriving late and irritating the vice principal, Mr. Canton. 

Despite this rocky start, several teachers take a liking to Joseph. The next day, Jack and Joseph stop at an old church, where they bond over throwing stones at the bell. Jack learns that Joseph named his daughter Jupiter after his favorite planet.

One morning, Joseph ventures onto the frozen Alliance River, alarming Jack, who once saw a dog drown after falling through the ice. 

When Joseph falls into the river, Jack rescues him and later notices a long scar on Joseph’s side.

As they begin riding the bus to school, Jack’s friends caution him against spending time with Joseph after a violent incident involving another student. 

The gym coach, Coach Swieteck, separates Joseph from the other eighth-grade boys.

During a family skating outing, the Hurds ask Joseph about his past. Joseph reveals that he used to help his father, Mr. Brook, with plumbing work and met a girl named Maddie during one of these jobs. 

They spent her school breaks together, and when Maddie was 13, she became pregnant. Joseph was subsequently sent to a juvenile corrections home and frequently attempted to escape to see Maddie. 

Eventually, Joseph’s case manager, Mrs. Stroud, convinced him to allow Jupiter to be adopted. Joseph later learned of Maddie’s death and, in his distress, attacked a teacher under the influence of drugs given by another boy.

Joseph’s troubles continue at school when he is attacked by an eighth-grade boy and his friends in the locker room. 

Jack intervenes, resulting in Joseph’s suspension. Several teachers visit the farm to tutor Joseph during this period. On Christmas Eve, Joseph attends his first church service with the Hurds and is moved by the story of Mary and Joseph. 

On Christmas Day, he receives a note from Mr. and Mrs. Hurd promising to help him find Jupiter.

In the new year, the Hurds discover that Jupiter is in nearby Brunswick. Joseph runs away in a bid to find her, prompting the Hurds to search for him despite a severe winter storm. When the weather clears, they drive to Brunswick, where Jack meets Jupiter’s foster mother, a librarian. She takes Jack to her home where Joseph has arrived. The librarian defuses the situation when the police arrive and gives Joseph a photo of Jupiter.

The librarian continues to write letters to Joseph. One day, upon returning from school, Jack and Joseph find Joseph’s father waiting for him. Mr. Brook threatens Jack, forcing Joseph to leave with him to protect Jack. 

As they drive away, their truck veers off the Alliance River bridge and falls into the icy river, killing both Joseph and his father. Joseph is buried alongside the Hurd family’s deceased members.

A year after Joseph’s death, the Hurds adopt Jupiter, and Jack becomes her surrogate brother, offering her the same support he once gave her father.

Orbiting Jupiter Summary

Character Analysis

Jackson “Jack” Hurd

Jack Hurd, the story’s narrator, is a young boy living with his parents on a farm in Maine. Jack is characterized by his compassion and sense of responsibility, traits that become more pronounced when Joseph arrives. 

Despite initial hesitation, Jack quickly forms a bond with Joseph, demonstrating a deep capacity for empathy and understanding. Jack’s actions, such as rescuing Joseph from the frozen river and defending him during the locker room fight, highlight his bravery and loyalty. 

Throughout the narrative, Jack evolves from a passive observer of Joseph’s struggles to an active supporter, ultimately becoming a surrogate brother to Joseph’s daughter, Jupiter. 

His growth reflects a journey from innocence to maturity, shaped by the profound experiences he shares with Joseph.

Joseph Brook

Joseph Brook is a complex character marked by his troubled past and emotional scars. At 14, Joseph has already endured significant trauma, including the loss of his girlfriend Maddie and the separation from his daughter, Jupiter. 

His initial reticence and volatile behavior stem from these deep wounds and a history of feeling misunderstood and abandoned. Joseph’s recklessness, such as walking onto the frozen river, indicates a disregard for his own safety, possibly reflecting a sense of hopelessness.

However, his gradual opening up to the Hurds and his desperate attempts to connect with Jupiter reveal a softer, more vulnerable side. Joseph’s relationship with Jack and the Hurd family signifies a tentative step towards healing, though his tragic end underscores the unresolved nature of his inner turmoil.

Mr. and Mrs. Hurd

Mr. and Mrs. Hurd embody kindness and steadfast support, playing crucial roles in Joseph’s life. Their decision to foster Joseph, despite his troubled background, illustrates their compassionate and nurturing nature. 

They offer Joseph a stable, loving environment and strive to understand and help him. Mrs. Hurd, in particular, acts as a maternal figure, providing comfort and reassurance. The Hurds’ promise to help Joseph find Jupiter demonstrates their deep commitment to his well-being. 

Their unwavering support extends beyond Joseph’s death, as they adopt Jupiter and integrate her into their family, ensuring that Joseph’s legacy lives on in a loving home.

Maddie

Though deceased before the story begins, Maddie’s influence on Joseph is profound. Her relationship with Joseph is depicted as a source of both joy and sorrow. 

Maddie represents a pivotal part of Joseph’s past, encapsulating his first experience of love and subsequent heartache. 

Her pregnancy and untimely death are central to Joseph’s emotional struggles, fueling his sense of loss and desperation.

Maddie’s memory motivates Joseph’s quest to find and reconnect with their daughter, Jupiter, highlighting the enduring impact she has on his life.

Mr. Brook

Mr. Brook, Joseph’s father, is portrayed as a negative force in Joseph’s life. His abusive and manipulative behavior significantly contributes to Joseph’s trauma. 

Mr. Brook’s threat to harm Jack and his coercion of Joseph into leaving with him exemplify his controlling and violent nature. The tragic accident that leads to their deaths underscores the destructive consequences of Mr. Brook’s actions. 

His character serves as a stark contrast to the supportive and loving environment provided by the Hurds, highlighting the profound impact of parental influence on a child’s life.

Jupiter

Jupiter, although a minor character in terms of direct involvement, represents hope and the possibility of redemption for Joseph. She is the motivation behind many of Joseph’s actions and decisions. 

The prospect of meeting and caring for Jupiter drives Joseph to seek a better future. After Joseph’s death, Jupiter becomes a symbol of continuity and renewal, as the Hurds adopt her, ensuring that she grows up in a loving environment. 

Jupiter’s presence in the Hurd family brings a sense of closure and fulfillment, reflecting the lasting influence of Joseph’s desire to be part of her life.

Themes

Redemption and Forgiveness

Joseph’s troubled past, marked by violence and mistakes, initially sets him apart as a character in need of redemption. 

His arrival at the Hurd farm symbolizes a second chance at life, offering him an opportunity to atone for his past actions. The Hurd family’s willingness to embrace Joseph, despite his history, reflects a deep sense of forgiveness. 

This theme is further explored through Joseph’s interactions with other characters, such as the teachers who see his potential and the librarian who helps him connect with Jupiter.

Joseph’s struggle to reconcile his past with his desire to be a good father to Jupiter underscores the profound human capacity for change and forgiveness.

Family and Belonging

The Hurd family, with their openness and compassion, exemplifies the ideal of an inclusive and supportive family unit. Their decision to foster Joseph, despite the potential challenges, highlights their commitment to providing a sense of belonging to those in need. 

Joseph’s initial withdrawal and eventual integration into the Hurd family dynamics illustrate the transformative power of familial love and acceptance. 

The theme is poignantly underscored when the Hurds adopt Jupiter after Joseph’s tragic death, ensuring that she grows up in a nurturing environment where she feels valued and loved. 

This continuity of care emphasizes that family is not just about blood relations but about the bonds of love and support.

Loss and Grief

The themes of loss and grief permeate the novel, affecting several characters profoundly. 

Joseph’s life is overshadowed by the loss of Maddie, whose death serves as a catalyst for his downward spiral and subsequent incarceration. His grief manifests in his desperate attempts to break free from juvenile detention to see his daughter, Jupiter. 

The emotional weight of Maddie’s death and the separation from his daughter haunt Joseph, driving his actions throughout the story. The ultimate tragedy of Joseph and his father’s death adds another layer of grief, affecting the Hurd family deeply. 

The novel explores how each character processes their grief, from Joseph’s initial despair to the Hurd family’s sorrow and eventual healing through their commitment to Jupiter.

Hope and Resilience

Despite the heavy themes of loss and grief, the novel is imbued with a sense of hope and resilience. 

Joseph’s determination to connect with Jupiter and his efforts to reform highlight his inner strength and hope for a better future. The Hurd family’s unwavering support and their belief in Joseph’s potential demonstrate resilience in the face of adversity. 

This theme is most evident in Jack’s journey as he supports Joseph and later Jupiter, embodying the resilience needed to overcome life’s challenges. 

The community’s support, as seen through the actions of the teachers and the librarian, reinforces the idea that hope can be nurtured through collective effort and compassion. 

Ultimately, the novel suggests that despite life’s hardships, hope and resilience can lead to healing and new beginnings.

Final Thoughts

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt is a tale of redemption, resilience, and the power of love. 

Through the eyes of Jack Hurd, readers witness the transformative journey of Joseph Brook, a troubled young boy seeking connection and redemption. The novel explores themes of loss, family, and the enduring impact of kindness. Despite the tragic ending, where Joseph’s life is cut short, the Hurds’ adoption of his daughter Jupiter provides a sense of hope and continuity. 

Schmidt masterfully creates a story that highlights the profound impact one life can have on another, leaving readers deeply moved.