January 26, 2006


The Misadventures of Maude March. By Audrey Coulombis. Random House. $15.95.

The Power of One. By Bryce Courtenay. Delacorte Press. $15.95.

     Both these books for ages 10-14 take place at times and in places so remote from those of their likely readers that they have an exotic flavor about them.  Preteens and young teens who enjoy the settings are likely to respond more favorably to the books than those who do not – even though both books are packed with adventure and designed to focus on their characters.

     The exoticism of The Misadventures of Maude March, subtitled “Trouble Rides a Fast Horse,” comes from the Wild West of Iowa and Missouri in 1869.  Two sisters, Sallie and Maude March, have only two living relatives, and when the one they live with is killed, they set out to find the other, who is rumored to live in a city 300 miles away.  Maude and Sally disguise themselves as boys for the trip, take two horses from the Reverend Peasley (with whom they have been living temporarily), and set out on their journey – until Peasley reports the horses stolen and the girls become wanted men…err, ladies.  Then Audrey Coulombis makes things even more complicated by having Sallie and Maude accidentally get involved in a bank robbery committed by a notorious cowboy about whom Sallie used to read.  It is not Sallie but Maude who is branded the robber, though, and as a result both girls find themselves on the run from just about everyone in the Wild West – on both sides of the law.  The girls eventually make it to the city they are seeking, which happens to be Independence, Missouri, which happens to be where Jesse James lives, which happens to lead to yet another plot complication.  The book would have worked better with a generous helping of humor, but there is little of that: Coulombis prefers to write a mostly straightforward adventure story.  Fans of Westerns and of U.S. history after the Civil War are most likely to enjoy this novel.

     The Power of One takes place in much more modern times: the World War II era, 1939-1945.  But it is set in a land most of its readers have never seen: South Africa.  And it is not a war story, except in the sense of being about a war between one boy and his surroundings.  This is a condensed version for young readers of Bryce Courtenay’s tale of Peekay, a boy with talent for both music and boxing, who makes his way through life using his fists while continuing to look for a way to succeed by keeping his hands on piano keys.  The book’s central theme of growing up with racial and social intolerance is effectively presented, but there is little in it that has not been written many times – albeit in different settings.  This condensation tells about half the story of Peekay, who survives loneliness and humiliation in childhood to pursue a dream of becoming welterweight champion of the world.  It takes readers from the Northern Transvaal in 1939 – where Peekay, as an English speaker in a land where Afrikaans is dominant, is an outcast – to his attainment of a Royal College of Music scholarship, to begin in 1946.  There is brutality here, and comradeship, and self-discovery.  The pacing is quick, the writing effective.  But Peekay’s boxing dreams may not resonate with many readers; and despite the book’s unusual setting, much of what it says has often been said before.

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