The Labors of Hercules Beal by Gary D. Schmidt

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Just like the other middle grade novels by Gary Schmidt, The Labors of Hercules Beal (Harper Collins, May 2023) follows the pattern of lonely or troubled kid learning from a loving and helpful teacher over the course of a school year. Once again, the protagonist is a seventh grader, this time a boy named Hercules Beal who lives near the coast on Cape Cod, a lovely healing setting. As Hercules overcomes his everyday-life trials, a strict but loving teacher challenges him to imate the labors of Hercules over the course of the year, interpreting the challenges as they relate to his own life.

As the book progresses, we learn that not only is Hercules nothing like his Greek namesake (he’s skinny and still short), he is facing real struggles as he comes to terms with his parents’ death and learns to get along with his older brother. Hercules begins to make sense of the ordinary. Through his responses to his teacher, Lieutenant Colonel Hupfer, he learns the power of love and community in grieving, growing, and succeeding.

Hercules’ voice feels fresh and unique. I listened to the audiobook and I felt like the narrator did a good job capturing this uniqueness. Although the narrator was a little overly dramatic in some places, in general The Labors of Hercules Beal is touching and something sure to resonate with kids who are wanting to find their own place. The fact that Hercules is dealing with PTSD seems to be a common theme among the various middle grade books I’ve read recently, which I guess is a sad commentary on a teenager’s life these days.

Hercules Beal is not my favorite of all of Gary Schmidt’s books. It may be my fault that it did not stand out, for I’ve read these four Schmidt novels in the last month, and they have started to blend together. Although the characters, the PTSD, and the settings differ, the general plot and ultimate realizations are so similar that it’s clear Schmidt has found a winning formula to imitate again and again. My issue with this book is that tasks of Hercules don’t naturally translate into our modern-day lives. Shakespeare is universal (see The Wednesday Wars) and drawing the animal world feels easy to apply to our lives (see Okay for Now), but Greek mythology simply does not feel relevant.

Somehow Hercules is able to explain the events of his school year in terms of Hercules’ labors. It’s really kind of a stretch in some places, but Hercules writes an event response that ties everything together nicely. Don’t get me wrong: it’s okay for a middle grade novel to be far-fetched and I’m sure it won’t bother the middle grade reader. From my perspective as a grown up I feel like there was something missing in Hercules Beal’s story.

Hercules and his teacher seemed way more personal with each other than I would expect a student and a teacher would be. The assignments that Lieutenant Colonel Hupfer expects from his students likewise seem a bit intense and challenging. He gives every student in the class a different mythology application project, for example. That’s not something that would be accepted in a public school. Of course, in this book it is a private school, and so that is how it can be explained.

I did see reviews saying that the teacher expected far too much of a twelve-year-old student. I wouldn’t necessarily say that the teacher expects too much; I think teachers need to expect more of kids. Twelve-year-olds can do far more than we expect. And yet, there was something about the way Hercules explains the tasks using the things that he actually ended up doing that were borderline ridiculous. My main eye-roll was when his older brother went out of town and Hercules was left in charge of the store. He was 12 years old: this is not something that would work in any world that I know. I also had lots of questions related to how the school ran properly and legally after it is temporarily relocated to the Beal’s barns and houses after the school building was ruined in a storm.

Unlike the insightful and historic novel The Wednesday Wars, Hercules Beal does not feel like the content has enough for the adult reader. But, for any young reader who is learning about the Greek myths, I think it would be a fun book to read as an application to how the Greek stories might possibly affect our lives. Maybe it would inspire other kids make their own graphic novel of Odyssey (as one of the students had to) or to research common myths from other cultures (as was another assignment).

Yes, replicating the trials of Hercules in your own life is a pretty amazing a concept and somehow Gary Schmidt made it work. Not without my reservations, I say that Hercules Beal is a nice book that emphasizes that teachers and community can help youth in the process of healing. By seeing community come together, Hercules and his brother could be reconciled through their grief. I loved the complementary characters (Viola, Lieutenant Colonel Hupfer, the neighbor Mr. Moby, Herc’s former fourth grade teacher), and I loved how the community and the volatile but beautiful coastal setting made Herc’s life so rich.

Reviewed on January 17, 2024

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

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