Review of the Day: Jim Ugly
Sid Fleischman has his fans, but I admit that I'd never come across the fellow until recently. One of the many disadvantages of not being a school aged child when "The Whipping Boy" came out, I guess. I found that Amazon.com claimed that he had a book on Houdini coming out in 2006 so I greedily contacted Greenwillow Books in the hope of gettting my sweaty little palms on an ARC. No such luck. Nice Greenwillow woman tells me that the book is actually due out in 2008. Doggone it. She still offered me a copy (which was sweet as pie) but since my own legitimate reason for wanting it was to review it for a list committee for 2006 books, I couldn't in all honesty agree. *sigh*
But back to Fleischman. Here's the review for his book, "Jim Ugly". Good stuff, that book:
I run a homeschooler bookgroup. Interesting little group. Anyway, they know what they like and I (a humble public librarian) try to provide them accordingly. Now in the bookgroup some of the members have only two kinds of books they enjoy. Dog stories and mysteries. To save time I decided to seek out some dog related mysteries in my library branch. Now you would think that this was a relatively easy request. Dog mysteries? No problem! Unfortunately this is not the case. Aside from the occasional "Something Queer" book in the Elizabeth Levy series, the only other title that popped out at me was "Jim Ugly" by Sid Fleischman. I'm well aware of Mr. Fleischman's work. This is the fellow that wrote the eternally popular, "The Whipping Boy" and I am currently enjoying a full-cast production recording of his, "By the Great Horn Spoon". Fleischman (NOT to be confused with fellow children's author Paul Fleischman) is sort of the Larry McMurty of children's literature. Lots of frontiersmen, rootin' tootin' Western fare, and plenty of good rollicking adventures, usually starring boys. "Jim Ugly", I found, was an entirely likable tale of a boy and the dog that doesn't respect him more than a common plugged nickel. There's attempted murder, mystery, fake funerals, diamond mines, and more flying arrows than you could shake a stick at. I dunno if the kids in my homeschooler bookgroup will dig it, but I for one think this book is the ideal boy-and-his-dog-mystery out there today. The fact that as of this date my review is one of the very few adult reviews of "Jim Ugly" should stand as a big big indicator of its popularity with the young `uns.
Jake's dad was an actor, a prospector, and now a dead man. To his only son, Sam Bannock left only one item: a large, mean, part-wolf dog that was Amigo to its original owner but is referred to as Jim Ugly by his son. Jake doesn't like Jim Ugly and Jim Ugly doesn't like him, but when the kid hears his cousin Aurora say that she intends to shoot the animal, he feels a bit protective towards it. And then theres's the fact that Jake doesn't quite feel right about the death of his pa. They say he was thrown by a horse, but Jake's unconvinced. And the fact that Jim Ugly can still follow the man's sent becomes more interesting when the dog doesn't go anywhere near a graveyard. Now a boy and a dog are off to rediscover the man they both loved and to figure out what all this has to do with a traveling actress, stolen diamonds, and a half-crazed cavalry sergeant who claims that there's a bounty on Sam Banock's head. Dead or alive.
Credit Fleischman with this, he certainly knows how to keep a book exciting. Characters jump from place to place and from chase to freight train without any of it ever striking the reader as hard to credit or too unbelievable. Fleischman really has the feel of the era down too. When you hear Jake talk, you feel as if you're actually witnessing a nineteenth-century kid in a hostile environment. The quick encapsulation at the end of diamonds and a villain getting his comeuppance rings a bit false, I guess, but it's a small price to pay for such a rousing good time. With children's books getting longer and longer and longer, it's wonderful to think that there are still guys like Fleischman out there who can tell a concise fast-paced tale without getting wrapped up in a lot of gobblety-gook. Parents are forever asking me (as a librarian) to recommend books for their young, male, reluctant readers. And after pointing out Jon Scieszka's website "Guys Read" (Google it, it's fun) I tend to steer them towards Fleischman's works. They're short but well-written and a heckuva lot of fun. "Jim Ugly" is certainly no exception. So if you've a kid who's been handed an assignment in school to read a little historical fiction, definitely consider "Jim Ugly" as perfect for their needs. A good-natured yarn with plenty of daring-do and quick escapes to satisfy even the toughest critic.