|Oct/Nov 2004 Book Reviews|
Jonathon Scott Fuqua. The Willoughby Spit Wonder.
Candlewick Press. 2003. 160 pp.
* * *
The most surprising juvenile fiction I have read in quite some time is Jonathon Scott Fuqua's Willoughby Spit Wonder. When I picked up this book, I thought I knew exactly what to expect from the dust jacket: a "poignant story of a family struggling against loss." It's your basic "parent dying while children cope" type of read, albeit set in the often overlooked time period of the early 1950s. Or at least that's what I thought it was going to be like. What made me buy Willoughby was the tease of the Sub-Mariner comic on the cover. As it turned out, comics do play a big part of the story, but so do a lot of other things that manage to make this a really good young adult title.
What you have here is a boy, Carter Johnson, his father, who suffers from an unnamed illness that is slowly killing him, and a setting near the Norfolk Navy Base in Virginia. But there is a lot more going on. The Korean War looms large, as does the very real threat of Cold War invasion from the Soviet Union. The House Committee on Un-American Activities is mentioned, as are more pop culture references like cars, tv and Sir Edmund Hillary's conquest of Mt. Everest (although that's not really "pop" culture I suppose.) The plot is driven by Carter's dream of swimming a great distance off shore (like the Sub-Mariner) and proving to his father that anything can be accomplished if you try, that even death itself can be defeated if only his father will work harder.
There is a certain level of predictability here, but it does not hamper the story at all. And the ending, surprisingly, is not sad but rather hopeful. Best of all, though, this book manages to tell a story that transcends any specific time period while grounding its characters firmly in the 1950s. It's a nice foray into the Korean War period, giving its readers a dose of history masked in a well-written, dramatic family tale. Nicely done.