|Jul/Aug 2006 Book Reviews|
The Case of the Missing Marquess.
Philomel/Sleuth. 2006. 216 pp.
As much as I have enjoyed Sherlock Holmes stories over the years, they are not necessarily titles that I would recommend to young adults. Some young readers would probably enjoy them a great deal, but they do get bogged down a bit in period detail, in just plain wordiness, and sometimes the story seems to be lost in the discussion of Watson and Holmes and how each of them is feeling about something. (Not that there's anything wrong with that; Watson just does tend to go on every now and again.) But I love the idea of a Sherlock for young people--the brainy ingenious mysteries, the atmosphere, some cool guy in his study solving the cases that elude everyone else. He's the sort of detective that in a slightly more young-adult friendly form would be an easy favorite for YAs everywhere. Well, yea for Nancy Springer who clearly felt the same way I do. Her new book, The Case of the Missing Marquess follows the adventures of Enola Holmes--the great detective's much younger sister, and it's a dandy from beginning to end.
Enola has been fortunate enough to have a very unconventional upbringing. Her widowed mother is a feminist and all too happy to let Enola pursue her own interests when it comes to learning. Mrs. Holmes isn't too impressed with what society thinks women should do or how they should dress and because of that Enola isn't too happy about these kinds of things either. (We're talking first-class corset haters here.) When her mother goes suddenly missing in the first few pages of the book, Enola feels compelled first to contact her brothers and then, when that proves to have some most unsatisfactory impacts on her life, to strike out on her own to find Mom. Along the way she falls into a completely unrelated mystery (of the missing marquess) and the way she goes about solving it is both brilliant and utterly appropriate. In fact, Springer has so carefully thought through this character and her world that everything makes perfect sense. The reader will clearly understand how Enola could solve a case that escapes even Sherlock. As to why she runs away from home--well, that is decision easily understood by anyone who has ever chafed under the loving (or arrogant) control of misguided family members. All in all, Enola is a forward-thinking, brave and resourceful young detective. Springer has started a marvelous new series with the The Case of the Missing Marquess and adult fans of Sherlock Holmes should take note that finally there is a book for all the young people in your life. Enola Holmes is really a great character and I couldn't get enough of her world.
Monkey Town: The Summer of the Scopes Trial.
Simon & Schuster. 2006. 259 pp.
For the longest time I thought, after receiving a degree in American History and going on to teach it to college students, that I had certain seminal events in U.S. history nailed down pretty well. You would think that I would know better, especially as a historian I should have known better, but I'm always surprised to learn just how off base I have always been on some things. The John Scopes trial is a perfect example of something I always thought was true and what I now know is not. The fact that I've gotten to the truth by reading a young adult novel is a bizarre twist, to say the least. But honestly, I'll take my dose of truth from any source that wants to offer it up. In this case, Ronald Kidd's crafting of a coming of age novel in the town of Dayton, Tennessee during the fateful summer of 1925 is a real treat. Yes, you learn a lot, but the story is so well written that the history does not dominate; it's just there, in the life of Frances Robinson as she tries to figure out her own truth and find her place in the rapidly changing world that surrounds her.
John Scopes was a young teacher when he agreed to a plan by the Dayton town fathers to pursue a trial over the teaching of evolution in the classroom. The first revelation in Monkey Summer is that initially creationism and evolution weren't honestly part of the reason for the trial--getting publicity for Dayton was what it was all about. Scopes was simply doing the town a favor; he was a small part of a large and well-crafted plan to make big city newspapermen notice the struggling Tennessee town. When William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow became involved it seemed like the organizers could not have played their cards any better. H.L. Mencken came to Dayton--heck, everybody came to Dayton--and this was what everyone wanted, what Frances' father, who was directly involved in crafting the publicity plan, had wanted. But then, as they often do, events got out of control for everyone. As her father explains:
…the frightening thing about a roller coaster is that someone else is in control. You go whipping around--up and down, around corners, and there's nothing you can do to change it. You just have to hang on until the ride is over. He shook his head, then looked down at me. "Frances, I have a funny feeling I have just stepped onto a roller coaster."
There was no one in control of the media monster that quickly grew in Dayton, least of all John Scopes, the poster boy for the trial. What happened to Scopes, and to everyone else involved, makes Monkey Town a great cautionary look at how easy it is to initiate a plan, but how hard it is to control it once other people begin to claim it as their own. Beyond that, though, is the story of evolution versus creationism, a battle that is still actively being fought in America today. Kidd doesn't hit anyone over the head with his ideas; instead he lets Frances voice all the honest questions and concerns of someone who has believed a certain thing passionately and without question, all of her life. He lets Frances wonder and wander and work her way through all the obvious doubts, on so many issues, that the Scopes trial brought to the surface of her little country town. The fact that there really was a Frances Robinson and that so many of the other elements introduced in the story are true (as explained in Kidd's excellent Author's Note), just makes this story that much more relevant, but no less enjoyable for young readers. In the end, everyone (of any age) who reads Monkey Town will find something of real value in this story. At its heart, the book is about growing up and asking questions, issues all of us can identify with and will certainly enjoy reading.
An Order of Amelie, Hold the Fries.
Annick Press. 2004. 136 pp.
Nina Schindler has done a fun and different thing with An Order of Amelie, Hold the Fries. She has taken the typical boy-meets-girl story and turned it into an adventure in communication (and miscommunication) by writing her book in the form of letters, emails, text messages and notes. There is no direct communication between Tim and Amelie in this story, but it is very clear to the reader just what is going right and wrong as their relationship progresses. Part of the fun is in seeing how they tell each other what they are feeling, and how Schindler is able to relate her tale in such a fun and unique way.
It all begins when seventeen-year old Tim sees the girl of his dreams walking down the street. Although he doesn't have the guts to actually talk to her, he is lucky enough to find a piece of paper with her name and address that she drops on the sidewalk. He sends Amelie a letter--a long letter--confessing his immediate attraction. Crazily enough she writes back, but it's not the answer he expects. As it turns out though it was not Amelie on the street, but a friend of hers, and not only is she totally not interested in meeting Tim, she has a boyfriend already. That should be the end of the story but Amelie is funny and Tim is bored and so an epistolary friendship begins. And then of course they decide to meet, and then of course...
Well, you can figure it out from there.
Schindler doesn't make it easy for Tim and Amelie and she doesn't give anything away to the reader. From the beginning this is the story of an unorthodox romance and so it's not going to proceed in any kind of predictable manner. I liked that it was not all a given and I also liked the very real sparks that flew between the two main characters. (It's surprising that Schindler was able convey sparks through text messages and emails, but she does a great job with few words.) An Order of Amelie is a 21st century update of the old-fashioned pen-pal romances (consider it a hip teenage version of You've Got Mail). It made me laugh out loud, and also made me nod my head in agreement. I liked Tim and Amelie and their friends a lot (and all those Leonard Cohen references also). This is the kind of story that will be appreciated by both literary and artistic readers (the book's design is quite good) and will certainly be passed along between beach chairs this summer.