Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Review of The Mostly True Adventures of Homer Pl Figg by Rodman Philbrick

The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick. (Scholastic/Blue Sky Press, 2009)

12-year-old Homer and his older brother Harold have been living with (or rather slaving for) their mean and nasty Uncle Squinton Leach (and a finer name for a villain I have rarely come across) ever since their beloved mother died. Harold has always looked after Homer, so when Uncle Squint illegally sells him into the Union Army, Homer is determined to find him and bring him back.

After Homer runs away, he has three main adventures. During the first, he has a run-in with two nefarious characters who have kidnapped a free black man and plan to sell him into slavery down south. This leads him to a stern but kindly Quaker who (after the previous situation has been satisfactorily resolved) sends him to New York to find his brother, along with a wispy reverend named Mr. Willow and some funds. During the second adventure, Mr. Willow is bilked of the money by a pair of confidence tricksters, meaning that Homer must set off alone. He quickly falls in with a huckster named Professor Fleabottom who sells “Neurotonic Nerve Elixir” (otherwise known as sweetened rum) to Union soldiers. During this last adventure, Homer finds his brother – but he is also briefly plunged into the horrors of war.

The breezy tone and the historical subject matter reminded me of some of Sid Fleischman’s books, particularly his McBroom tall tales and his California-based historical adventures such as Bandit Moon. Homer P. Figg would have felt at home in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as well, with his gift of gab and penchant for getting into trouble. While the overall feel of the book is humorous, the treatment of such subjects as slavery and war is serious, if brief.

Although Homer tends to tell extravagant fibs at the drop of a hat, he waxes humble and heart-felt when he talks about his older brother, and so the reader really does expect to find a larger-than-life character in Harold. What a disappointment, then, that Harold is just an ordinary fellow who is not only an unsuccessful soldier but whose primary emotion on getting sold to the army was relief to escape from his responsibilities as an older brother. He’s not a bad guy, just a human one. And since the whole reason for all Homer’s adventures was to find Harold, it was odd that the book ends shortly thereafter, with little comment on Homer’s part about how their relationship has obviously changed – Homer has shown himself to be the intrepid brother, the one with initiative and drive. However, most readers will probably just be glad that the brothers end up safe, sound, and whole (well, almost whole).

Fast-paced and full of colorful language and eccentric characters, this is a good choice for kids in grade 4 and up.

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