I have been a huge fan of N.D. Wilson's book since I read his first, Leepike Ridge. I pre-order his books as soon as I can and devour them all. I was so excited when I discovered he had a new stand alone, the first since Leepike Ridge, coming out this year. Then everyone else (who doesn't read their ARCs in order of publication date, or at least doesn't get as behind as I sometimes do) started singing its praises and my excitement and expectations increased. Basically, I had astronomical expectations for this book going into it and it managed to surpass them.
This is a review of an ARC from the publisher.
When Charlie moves from Palm Beach to the small town of Taper, Florida, he discovers a different world. Pinned between the everglades and the swampy banks of Lake Okeechobee, the small town produces sugar cane . . . and the fastest runners in the country. Kids chase muck rabbits in the fields while the cane is being burned and harvested. Dodging flames and blades and breathing smoke, they run down the rabbits for three dollars a skin. And when they can do that, running a football is easy.
But there are things in the swamp, roaming the cane at night, that cannot be explained, and they seem connected to sprawling mounds older than the swamps. Together with his step-second cousin Herman "Cotton" Mack, the fastest boy on the muck, Charlie hunts secrets in the glades and on the muck flats where the cane grows secrets as old as the soft earth, secrets that haunted, tripped, and trapped the original native tribes, ensnared conquistadors, and buried runaway slaves. Secrets only the muck knows.
Boys of Blur is a story of brotherhood, rivalry, football, family, and Beowulf. Yes, Beowulf.
Charlie has a past that haunts him and also fills him with hope and purpose. His mother left his dangerously violent father when he was only five. Charlie remembers the fear and what it was like to be running from him. He has a step-dad now though who is everything that is wonderful and encouraging and an adorable little sister. As the story opens, Charlie's past and present are colliding. Back in the town where both his father and step-father grew up, and where both men currently are working, Charlie is facing a present that is both haunting and hopeful too. This story is about him finding the courage to face the things that frighten him, let go of the things eating at his soul, and learning to run with the best of them-not away from things but toward them. He is a character who pulls at the reader and draws them into the story. His step-second-cousin, Cotton, who claims him as just a cousin, welcomes him to his new home and teaches him a bit about the town and the running. The two boys bond like most boys do: running and getting into trouble together. I really liked this aspect. The cast of other characters are wide and varied. This is a short book, less than 200 pages, and yet the entire town comes to life. Each character has a distinct voice and that includes all of the adults. I particularly liked Mack, Charlie's ex-football star step-father. I also appreciated how the storyline with Charlie's real father was handled.
This sounds like fairly typical MG contemporary realistic fiction at this point, but it isn't. Because there is something not quite alive but not quite dead wreaking havoc in the flats. Old rivalries are tearing the town apart. The little jealousies, bitter musings, and grudges people have cradled in their hearts are taking over their whole souls. Everyone is turning on everyone else. Charlie and Cotton discover it is due to an ancient evil trapped beneath the muck and swamp lands waiting for her time to take over the halls and bodies of men. Soon the boys find themselves having to face this evil and decide what to do about it. They are brave and foolish. Just as 12 year old boys are. And it all works together so well. The plot is a reworking of Beowulf, the evil being the mother who is birthing man devouring monsters. She wants to burn the world. It is up to Charlie to stop it. I really appreciated how he had so much assistance though. This is one thing Wilson always does well in his books. In a world of MG and YA novels where adult supervision and assistance are glaringly, sometimes ridiculously, absent, Wilson never abandons his young protagonists to fight their monsters alone. There are always strong, capable, and loving adults there to help.
The themes explored in this novel are sweeping in scope. For such a short, quick read, the book is brimming with symbolism and thematic greatness. What makes a family, what holding on to the negative aspects of life does to a person, when to stand up for right, having courage in the face of overwhelming odds, and knowing what it is you are living for (so you can know what it is you are willing to die for) are all pulled into Charlie's story. Themes Wilson explores in most of his books, but they all are worth exploring repeatedly and he does it so darn well. There is also a great deal of diversity in the book, a thing we need more of and is always nice to see. Charlie is white, his step-dad is black. I loved how this wasn't a big deal, it just was. They make some jokes about it, but they're jokes that clearly come from a place of comfort and familiarity with each other. A knowledge that they are family no matter.
The imagery and descriptiveness of the book are pretty much perfect. As I read, I felt like I was right there with the boys. I could feel the stifling heat, the burning, the pain. And the words just flow together so well:
The bicycle pegs swayed beneath Charlie's feet. He felt strange moving so quickly while standing so still, like a man on a chariot. Gravel crunched beneath the tires and Cotton's shoulders rocked under his hands. Moonglow loomed on the horizon. or maybe it was the sky-kiss of distant lights. Charlie's skin prickled as night air parted around him. Every bit of him was hungry to feel and to remember.
Florida darkness washed over him, and Charlie Reynolds filled his lungs with it. Maybe he didn't belong in this place, but he belonged in this moment. It smelled like rich earth and hidden water. It smelled like fire.
And if all of this weren't extraordinary enough, Wilson managed to write a small town story that is not over flowing with quirkiness. THANK HEAVENS.
This line is probably my favorite though because it pretty much sums up the south: Football and church don't cancel for nobody.
Boys of Blur is a book that will be an easy sell for any reader, reluctant or book devourer. Football, monsters, boys who are heroes, the fast pace of the writing, and overall shortness are going to make it a hot commodity. If you know a child buy it for them. If you work with children buy more than one to have on hand. My students love Wilson's books and this is going to send some of the boys into a state of pure bliss. I may get trampled when I book talk it.
I read an ARC provided by the publisher, Random House Books for Young Readers, at ALA Midwinter. Boys of Blur is available for purchase on April 8th.