October 29, 2009


Gone from These Woods. By Donny Bailey Seagraves. Delacorte Press. $15.99.

Road to Tater Hill. By Edith M. Hemingway. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

Wild Girl. By Patricia Reilly Giff. Wendy Lamb Books. $15.99.

The Hanging Hill. By Chris Grabenstein. Random House. $16.99.

     Troubles come in all types in these books for preteens, but in only one size: big. Gone from These Woods starts with a hunting accident, but what it is about is the aftermath. Eleven-year-old Daniel Sartain goes hunting, unwillingly, with his Uncle Clay, and is happy not to shoot the rabbit that Clay points out – but, as Daniel straightens up, the gun goes off. Daniel panics, vomits, runs for help, can barely look at his uncle’s still form, but eventually gets help – only to find out that Clay is dead. And then Daniel has to cope. “The sandwich didn’t even taste like food as I tried to chew it.” “I just wanted to sink down into the warmth of my bed and disappear.” “Now I felt jagged edges all over. They hurt. Hurt like my whole body was nothing but broken bones jabbing through tender skin.” The path to healing is a long one and by no means a straight line, and Daniel’s family situation doesn’t help much: his mother is supportive, but his dad drinks, has a nasty temper, and has a family tragedy in his own life that still eats at him. It is eventually Daniel’s own memories of Clay that come to his rescue, as when he rediscovers in a closet the jacket last worn on the fatal day: “Couldn’t look at it without seeing blood that wasn’t there… I’d worn this same jacket when Clay took me to the county fair in Athens [Georgia] a few weeks ago.” And then Daniel’s thoughts turn to pleasant memories, and eventually to a “conversation” with Clay, whose voice Daniel hears saying, “When somebody you love dies, you don’t follow them. You keep going, for them and for yourself. You walk where they can’t walk anymore.” Daniel finds enough inner strength to confront his bullying father, and the result is a cautiously optimistic conclusion.

     Road to Tater Hill follows much the same story arc, despite being set in a different time: the summer of 1963. There is death here, too, and of a particularly cruel kind: 11-year-old Annie’s brand-new baby sister, Mary Kate, dies just one day after being born, shattering Annie’s family (whose last name, Winter, evokes the chill that comes over all of them). Annie’s father is absent – with the Air Force in Germany – and Annie turns increasingly inward as she watches her mother decline into depression. This book, like Gone from These Woods, has a rural setting, but Road to Tater Hill uses it differently. The Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina give Annie a stream to which she escapes, complete with a stone she calls her “rock baby.” They also make it possible for Annie to meet an elderly recluse named Miss Eliza, who is ostracized by the community because she just served 30 years in jail for killing her husband. Gradually, preteen and old woman come to trust each other, and Annie learns that her family is not the only one to have lost a baby or fallen victim to grief. And it is through Miss Eliza that both Annie and her mother finally come face-to-face with their own deep sorrow and their enduring love for each other.

     The love in Wild Girl is for a horse – whose name is the title of the book. The one who loves her is 12-year-old Lidie, a Brazilian girl whose father and brother have moved to the United States and who eventually joins them in Queens, New York. Lidie faces some expected adjustment difficulties and some unexpected ones. Like any immigrant with a language barrier, she has difficulty communicating with teachers and classmates. But she also has trouble communicating with her own family: everyone treats her like a little girl, and her father gives her an old, tame horse to ride – not realizing that Lidie has become an accomplished rider. And that is where Wild Girl comes in: Lidie is determined to ride the apparently untamable filly, believing (accurately, as it turns out) that she and Wild Girl are both having adjustment difficulties and will turn out to have a lot in common. “I knew what it was like to feel alone. I knew that terrible ache,” thinks Lidie while observing Wild Girl – whose own feelings are given in third-person sections that complement Lidie’s first-person narrative. A confrontation between Lidie and her father leads to greater understanding on both sides, and a conclusion that cements the notion that both Lidie and the filly are wild girls – both of whom eventually find contentment in their surroundings.

     There is nothing to be content about in The Hanging Hill, a sequel to Chris Grabenstein’s The Crossroads that moves the earlier book’s supernatural elements to a new setting. In fact, things had to move somewhere else after what happened to the home of 11-year-old Zack Jennings and his stepmother, Judy, in the first book. Judy is an author of kids’ books, and she and Zack are spending a few relaxing weeks (along with Zack’s dog, Zipper) rehearsing a new musical based on one of Judy’s works. At least they should be relaxing weeks, but unfortunately, Zack keeps seeing ghosts – this is something he does all the time – and the theater is haunted, and the director wants to raise the evil dead by doing dastardly things to a child born under a full moon. That would be Zack, who “was sort of short and kind of skinny and really didn’t look all that tough, even when he took off his glasses.” Grabenstein’s blend of spookiness and humor is somewhat more forced here than in The Crossroads, where the scary parts predominated. Zack makes a new friend, Meghan McKenna, who of course gets caught up in the supernatural mysteries that seem to follow Zack everywhere, including to the Hanging Hill Playhouse. Zack’s dead mother reappears, apparently not having given Zack enough trouble in the previous book, and there is a young Native American girl ghost who asks whether Zack is a demon, and the ghost of a killer named Mad Dog Murphy who unaccountably knows Zack’s name, and a bunch of good ghosts as well, including a onetime actor who declaims to Zack, “Be not afraid of greatness, lad!” The Hanging Hill is not quite a romp and not quite a chiller. By the time Meghan tells Zack that “there are so many other mysteries we still have to unravel,” things have gotten pretty thoroughly confused. Like the prior Zack Jennings novel, this one ends up being somewhat overdone even though it is often a lot of fun to read.

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