October 21, 2010


The 39 Clues, Book 10: Into the Gauntlet. By Margaret Peterson Haddix. Scholastic. $12.99.

The Hunger Games, Book 3: Mockingjay. By Suzanne Collins. Scholastic. $17.99.

The Porcupine Year. By Louise Erdrich. Harper. $5.99.

Football Genius #4: The Big Time. By Tim Green. Harper. $16.99.

     It has been a long time coming, but there was never any doubt that it would come to this: Amy and Dan Cahill come out on top in the search for The 39 Clues. After two years, 10 books, numerous bound-in collectible cards and uncounted amounts of time spent online, followers of the series finally get the conclusion they have expected all along in Into the Gauntlet. Yet Margaret Peterson Haddix’s book is a disappointment in many ways. True, Haddix had no choice about where to take the series – the conclusion was foreordained from the beginning. But it’s really not much of a conclusion, and more-thoughtful readers are going to wonder whether they have been set up. First of all, what’s with the title of this book? The reference is to “running the gantlet,” which means being compelled to race between two rows of people (usually soldiers) who may strike the runner as they wish. But that is gantlet. A gauntlet is an armored glove – and although the misspelling is common in this phrase, it is unintentionally funny to think of Amy and Dan hopping into a protective piece of armor. Second of all, and more seriously, how are readers going to feel when the primary revelation of this book is that there exists another powerful family, much like the Cahills, called the Vespers, and that Amy and Dan are likely about to embark on a new set of adventures that will pit them against members of that family? The whole thing feels like a bit of a cheat – or a marketing tactic. Yes, other things are revealed in this 10th volume, including grandmother Grace Cahill’s reasons for appearing to treat Amy and Dan shabbily. And yes, the long-sought elixir is finally created here – and then destroyed, which is not really a big surprise. And yes, the 14-year-old girl and 11-year-old boy manage to bring a sense of unity to the violently competitive Cahill clans that many generations of adults never were able to provide. So yes, Into the Gauntlet ties up many loose ends. But is it really a satisfactory conclusion to this series? It could be argued that it is not much of a conclusion at all.

     Mockingjay, on the other hand, is a conclusion – to the trilogy that began with The Hunger Games and continued with Catching Fire. It is a satisfying conclusion, too, but those who saw the exceptional promise of the unusual premise of the first book may find that the trilogy’s ending is a little flat. What happens is that this book, like Catching Fire but to a greater degree, falls into well-established patterns of the fantasy/SF genre. The focus of all the books has been Katniss Everdeen. In Mockingjay, she is the linchpin of a rebellion against the tyranny of the Capitol – led by District 13, which supposedly did not exist but has turned out to be very real indeed. Katniss is a pawn in the budding revolution – that explains many of the improbable elements of her survival in this bleak and violent world – and in the final book, she must become a knowing pawn rather than one manipulated from behind the scenes. This is, of course, an extremely difficult decision for Katniss, forcing her to confront issues of trust and her understandable anger at having been manipulated so often and in so many ways. But despite Suzanne Collins’ skill at plotting and writing, there is never really any doubt that Katniss will allow herself to be used by the rebels to further their cause; the focus is on how she will agree rather than on whether she will. And there is never really any doubt that, after going through much hardship and making many difficult decisions, including life-or-death ones, Katniss will survive and the rebellion will be successful. The certainty of the plotting and the outcome make this book less than fully compelling, although readers who have stayed with Katniss from the start will certainly cheer when she overcomes all adversities and pulls herself and her society onward toward a better tomorrow.

     A better tomorrow is also what a young 19th-century Ojibwe girl named Omakayas, and her family, are seeking in The Porcupine Year, Louise Erdrich’s 2008 sequel to The Birchbark House (2000) and The Game of Silence (2006). Now available in paperback, The Porcupine Year is set in 1852, when Omakayas is 12, and follows her family after it is forced by the coming of white settlers to leave its home on the Island of the Golden Breasted Woodpecker. A porcupine that stumbles into the family’s life, pointing its nose toward the West, comes to symbolize the family’s journey, which Erdrich bases on her own family’s history. The book is nicely written and filled with warmth and traditional Native American values; readers of the two earlier books will certainly enjoy it. But it does partake of what used to be called the fallacy of the “Noble Savage,” suggesting that the old ways are inevitably best and the new ones (and those who bring them) offer nothing but harm. This is a view as one-sided as that of the white settlers who so casually (and often brutally) displaced the Native Americans from their traditional lands. The hardships that Omakayas and her family face and overcome on their journey are well told, and the narrative of the way these troubles cement the family members’ relationships is heartfelt and believable. But the nearly unremitting nobility and steadfastness of Omakayas and her kin is rather hard to swallow, making the book a largely one-dimensional one.

     The great nobility of organized sports is rather hard to swallow, too, but readers of the Football Genius novels are expected to accept it at face value. Otherwise these books, of which The Big Time is the fourth, make no sense whatsoever. This novel is intended to showcase conflicts between family matters and football ambition, as Troy White – who is helping his team make the playoffs and is already being recruited by numerous agents – is suddenly confronted by a lawyer who says he is Troy’s father. Troy has wanted to find and be with his father for years, but now that desire may be in conflict with the tremendous importance of football. It turns out that Troy’s dad, like Troy, had ambitions to be in the NFL, but a serious injury (“another eighth of an inch and I wouldn’t be walking”) got in the way. Troy’s father initially proves supportive, and Troy’s team wins the state championship, but there are (understandably) significant conflicts between Troy’s father and mother, and Troy even has to decide whether to help the FBI when it turns out that his father’s activities could land him in jail for up to 10 years. Family matters end up going badly – very badly indeed – but football matters go quite well for Troy, and Tim Green suggests that that somehow makes up for everything else. Dedicated football fans and players may agree with the way Green has things come out. Anyone else who picks up this book is likely to put it down, at the end if not before, with a very sour taste in his or her mouth.

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