Saturday, August 20, 2011

Review of The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill

Barnhill, Kelly.  The Mostly True Story of Jack.  Little, Brown, 2011.

Those who think that tales of ancient powers and magical guardians belong only to the Old World haven't read this book or other recent stories of magic in the American heartland*.

Jack knows, sort of, that his situation is peculiar, but he has never wanted to think about it too deeply.  He is so unnoticeable that he's never had to pay for a bus or train ride in his life.  His own parents and brother don't seem to notice him, and there is not a single photo of him anywhere.  But when his mother abruptly drops him off at her sister's house in a tiny town in Iowa, Jack learns - slowly and frustratingly - that there is a magical power here in Hazelwood that has been stealing children.  The richest man in town is somehow connected.  And so is Jack.

This is a deliciously sensual story, filled with the smells of dirt and electrical storms, radiating stifling heat or eerie cold, and pulsing with energy both beneficent and scary.  The power manifests in simple but extremely creepy ways - one building radiates such ominous hostility that it seems right out of a Stephen King novel. 

Luckily, Jack's solidity keeps the story grounded, even as he turns out to be one of the most exotic things about it, and his friends Anders, Wendy, and the tragic Frankie all play their own vital and unique parts in uncovering the secrets of Hazelwood in order to heal it.

This tale of transforming powers of friendship and love is highly recommended for ages 9 to 12.

*Other examples include N.D. Wilson's 100 Cupboards series, Roderick Townley's The Door in the Forest and Brenna Yovanoff's The Replacement.

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