June 29, 2006


Toad Away. By Morris Gleitzman. Random House. $14.95.

     Limpy the cane toad is surely one of the least likely heroes ever to grace a tongue-in-cheek fantasy series.  Cane toads are nasty creatures in real life: poisonous, fast-breeding critters that crowd out native fauna in parts of Australia and that have prompted one Member of Parliament to suggest getting out there and swatting them with golf clubs.  They really do need to be brought under control, because while they eat all sorts of creatures in Australia, they are so poisonous that nothing much eats them, and they breed so quickly in Australia’s favorable climate that they have become, collectively, a real menace.

     How British-born Morris Gleitzman, who moved to Australia when he was 16, selected this singularly unappetizing (so to speak) amphibian as a hero is hard to fathom.  Even harder to understand is how Gleitzman, while acknowledging the cane toad’s many unpleasant points in his stories, has managed to make the creature so empathetic and lovable.

     One thing Gleitzman does is prevent readers from focusing on cane toads en masse and bring the story down to a single toad and a few of his close friends and associates.  Limpy may be an unlikely hero, but he is not an impossible one.  Of course, what he does is impossible, but…

     Okay, let’s back up a bit.  Limpy; his sister, Charm; and his friend, Goliath, have their third adventure in Toad Away.  Gleitzman’s series started with Toad Rage and continued with Toad Heaven, two neatly punning and highly enjoyable titles (and books), nether of which you need to read to understand this one (but if you like this, you’ll like those, too).  This time, Limpy and Goliath are on different paths that converge at the end.  Limpy is more determined than ever to find a way for cane toads and humans to coexist peacefully, sharing things they have in common, such as slug sauce and maggot moisturizer.  Okay, he’s a little mixed up, but his heart is in the right place.  Goliath, though, has had enough of human attempts to get rid of cane toads – not to mention their unheeding destruction of the toads, notably by running over them with motor vehicles.  Goliath is putting together an army to fight back.

     It gets stranger.  Limpy decides that the secret of peaceful coexistence lies in the Amazon, and so that is where he goes.  How does a cane toad get to (and back from) the Amazon?  The answer is: amusingly.  Limpy has to head to parts unknown because the local source of cane-toad wisdom, Aunty Pru, has an unfortunate encounter with a truck.  Eventually, after a wild series of mismatched encounters, including a turn on the movie set of Armageddon 4—Rise of the Toads, Limpy discovers that the secret to improved human-toad interaction is…toad pee.

     Yes, really.  And if you don’t appreciate that, you certainly won’t care for the Australian slang sprinkled throughout the book (there’s a helpful glossary at the end).  But if you do accept Limpy’s discovery – well, you may not have to buy a new set of golf clubs.

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