April 14, 2011


The Manatee Scientists: Saving Vulnerable Species. By Peter Lourie. Houghton Mifflin. $18.99.

The Secret Journeys of Jack London #1: The Wild. By Christopher Golden & Tim Lebbon. Illustrated by Greg Ruth. Harper. $15.99.

Inside Out & Back Again. By Thanhha Lai. Harper. $15.99.

Purple Heart. By Patricia McCormick. Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins. $8.99.

     One of the most interesting books in the always interesting series called Scientists in the Field, Peter Lourie’s The Manatee Scientists offers up-close-and-personal views of a genuinely strange animal that is both well studied and very little known: the manatee. This aquatic mammal, a distant relative of the elephant, has thick elephant-like skin (sometimes sparsely covered with hair) and only two limbs, which are generally tipped with nails (again, as in elephants). The limbs, toward the front of its ungainly body, propel the manatee through the water, usually at a slow pace (although the animals can swim quickly when they wish to) and usually with little regard for what is going on around or above them (manatees have few natural predators, although certain big cats, such as jaguars, are thought to hunt them from time to time). Because manatees are not so much fearless as fear-ignorant, and because their entirely aquatic life brings them into close proximity with humans using boats, collisions between manatees and human craft are common, with many manatees bearing scars and many others (at least in the past) having suffered fatal blows from propellers. Lourie not only studied manatees for this book but also photographed them, and the pictures are simply wonderful. There are three manatee species: West Indian (of which the Florida manatee is a subspecies), Amazonian and Antillean. The first type has been very extensively studied, and a great deal is known about it; it is also well protected by law and (increasingly) by custom in Florida, where it lives year-round. The other types, which live in more-remote locations and more-brackish water, are less well understood, although Lourie explain what is known about them and is able to show pictures of them as well. Lourie follows scientists who study manatees to remote and more-accessible locations alike, and discusses the way the marine mammals are regarded by natives of some of the areas where they live: “Some [West African] villagers believe the breath of the manatee can kill a person,” and a manatee hunter in the small village of N’Tutu knew a great deal “about their habitat use and their distribution in the area…[but] would never stop hunting [them].” Lourie concludes with a discussion of continuing controversies about manatees – for example, whether allowing people to swim with them puts a strain on them or helps them by giving people more knowledge of and respect for the animals. A thought-provoking, information-packed book, The Manatee Scientists reveals a great deal about a highly unusual creature – and, through its resource list, opens the door for interested readers to find out even more.

     A famous real-world adventurer and author, Jack London (real name: John Griffith Chaney) traveled from the South Pacific to the Klondike and wrote a considerable amount of fiction based on his wanderings (as well as a considerable amount of nonfiction in furtherance of the social causes in which he believed). London’s works have not all worn very well, but his life story has elements of the cinematic about it, and that is the basis of the new series, The Secret Journeys of Jack London. The idea is that London (1876-1916), in addition to the trips that he chronicled and on which he based his fiction, made others that were even more adventurous but that he could not or would not write about. The Wild, the first of these made-up adventures, is set in 1893, when 17-year-old London and his brother-in-law head for Alaska to join the gold rush (this is a variation on what really happened: London and his brother-in-law did indeed join the rush to the northern gold fields, but not until 1897). Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon tell a story in which the genuine roughness of the Klondike is made even more so by slavery, kidnapping and the supernatural. The creature from beyond here is the Wendigo, the malevolent Native American spirit that can inhabit humans and that is associated with wintry cold and cannibalism. Through chapters with titles ranging from “City of Hope and Greed” to “Unto the Hands of Beauty,” the authors follow Jack on an outward journey that – as usually happens in books for preteens and young teenagers, such as this one – is an inward journey of self-discovery and self-knowledge as well. The writing here is often self-conscious to the point of clunkiness: “He heard the wolf’s howl nearby but could not respond to the call of the wild. Not this time.” And the motivations tend to be clunky, too: “Simply being near the girl confused his thoughts. He wanted to build something, to hunt something, to defeat another man to win her affections.” An encounter with the Wendigo is inevitable, and a struggle with forces both internal and external equally so. There are other frightening events, too, although the prose is not always equal to describing them: “And now a little tremor of true fear was seeded in his heart.” The few illustrations, by Greg Ruth, are effectively atmospheric, but the book as a whole is rather tame, for all its attempts to horrify: “He fell from astride the shrinking corpse, reached out with his right hand, and cut a flap of bloody flesh and skin from the thing’s chest.” As a surface-level action/adventure novel, The Wild works well enough to earn a (+++) rating, but the tie-in to the real life of Jack London is a shaky one at best.

     Inside Out & Back Again, on the other hand, is a real-life story – the lightly fictionalized tale of author Thanhha Lai’s escape from Vietnam and relocation to Alabama. Intended for the same age range as The Wild, Lai’s debut novel is wild in a very different sense. Lai tells and dramatizes her own life through the story of 10-year-old Hà, who flees Saigon with her mother and three older brothers. Needing sponsorship to live in the United States, the family receives it from a car dealer whose interest is piqued because one brother, Quang, was studying to be a mechanic in Vietnam and is good at car repairs. A fairly straightforward adaptation-to-a-new-life and coming-of-age tale, the book gets a (+++) rating in large part because Lai tells it so interestingly – in free verse rather than prose. Thus, “Our Cowboy,” about the man who makes the family’s new life possible, reads, “Our sponsor/ looks just like/ an American should./ Tall and pig-bellied,/ black cowboy hat,/ tan cowboy boots,/ cigar smoking,/ teeth shining,/ red in face,/ golden in hair./ I love him/ immediately/ and imagine him/ to be good-hearted and loud/ and the owner of a horse.” Each poem bears a date (“Our Cowboy” is listed as “August 8”), and each advances the story a little bit. “Letter Home,” dated “August 25,” for example, begins, “As soon as we have an address/ Mother writes/ all the way to the North/ where Father’s brother/ anchors down the family line/ in their ancestral home.” And, as Hà learns English, “Spelling Rules” (dated September 30) begins, “Sometimes/ the spelling changes/ when adding an s./ Knife becomes knives.” Adaptation is hard; there are bullies at school; Hà shoulders responsibility for the family’s plight because she violated some superstitions back in Vietnam; but eventually, Hà does adapt, though with difficulty (“Ours is a silent/ Christmas Eve”). The final realization is: “Our lives/ will twist and twist,/ intermingling the old and the new/ until it doesn’t matter/ which is which.” Not a great revelation, perhaps, but certainly a very important one, especially in this context.

     Different war, different circumstances, but many similar issues: Patricia McCormick’s Purple Heart is about Iraq and a soldier named Matt Duffy, who wakes up brain-injured in a hospital to receive a Purple Heart and try to deal with a very disturbing memory of a small Iraqi boy named Ali, his friend, being shot in the chest. How? By whom? Under what circumstances? These questions become part of a puzzle: while Hà seeks to retain and absorb memories, Matt seeks to recapture and integrate them. Intended for an older group of readers, ages 12 and up, Purple Heart tackles some difficult political and moral issues, and McCormick does not feel obliged to give easy or pat answers. Matt returns to combat, seeking only to resume his life as a soldier, but finds himself with a whole batch of new worries, especially fear of not being able to shoot when he must – because he has a nagging suspicion that he had something to do with the boy’s death. McCormick writes well, but the plot of this (+++) book is a trifle too neatly poised to have the grittily realistic effect that is clearly intended. With elements of thriller interlaced with some from a war novel, Purple Heart needs to keep the reader guessing for its full effect; but that requires revealing only so much about what is going on, and not more – an approach that starts to seem a little manipulative after a while. Still, there is genuine feeling in the portrayal of Matt, and McCormick’s willingness to show how difficult questions of guilt and innocence are in wartime is admirable. “Matt was a fool. He’d thought he was a good guy, the kind of guy who handed out art supplies to little kids and played soccer with them. But it was his friendship with Ali that had gotten the boy killed. …[B]y befriending Ali, Matt had actually put the whole squad at risk.” There is no epiphany, and no strong pro-war or anti-war message, either. There is just a journey to a truly wild world, a world of pain and hurt and failed understanding, a world of abyssal differences between people more difficult to bridge than those between humans and animals.

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