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Tom Hanks Reviews a Tale Told by a Typewriter

OLIVETTI, by Allie Millington


Typewriters — the manually powered writing machines once made by Remington, Underwood and Royal — are wondrous things.

To see their magic in action, try this trick: Set a typewriter out on a table with a sheet of paper pre-rolled into its carriage, and wait. Nearly every child, and many adults, will be drawn to the beauty and specificity of the machine. They will just have to type something. A thought. A complaint. A poem. A wish.

The keys, knobs and levers of typewriters were made to do one thing, and one thing only: draw out words we each carry within us that have the potential to create meaning, achieve permanence.

In her debut novel, Allie Millington takes such magic a step further. Her titular character, a midcentury Lettera 22 (called Olivetti, after the company that made him), is a sentient if stationary being who — like so many teddy bears, action figures and sock puppets in children’s literature and pop culture — can worry, remember, love and fear. Olivetti lives, which is a boon to the Brindle family, particularly their quietly troubled 12-year-old, Ernest.

Good lord, what 12-year-old boy isn’t troubled? Ernest’s parents have been sending him to a therapist whom he calls Dr. Round-a-bout, because the doctor’s questions go in circles: “And how do you think you feel about how you think about how you’re feeling?” His place in the family pecking order (third of the four kids) means his problems tend to be noted as afterthoughts. And his habit of isolating himself (on the roof of their apartment building with his thick, red Oxford English Dictionary, which he reads entry by entry: “Apologize. Apology. Apoplexy. Apostle. Apostrophe”) is dismissed as antisocial behavior. Why can’t he be enthralled with his phone like his siblings?

Ernest is the Brindle most burdened by cares and worries, not the least of which is “Everything That Happened,” a phrase he hears constantly from the adults in his life. (“Everything That Happened”is shorthand for an all-too-common family crisis that has already visited the Brindles.)

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