Review of the Day: Alabama Moon
I’m declaring a ban on any more foster child books. That’s it, people. We’re done. 2006 has seen more foster care fiction than anyone would care to handle and we’re slash I'm tired of it. From here on in I am not reviewing another foster child work of fiction... right after I finish reviewing, “Alabama Moon”. Literary foster children may be ubiquitous, but that doesn’t mean that some of the books out there aren’t original. Take Watt Key’s first foray into the world of children’s fiction as your example. Here we have a premise that sounds like it could either be supremely cool or deeply dull. Picking it up I hoped it would fall on the “cool” side of the equation, and I was not disappointed. Though it may turn away some easy-to-scare readers with its 294 page heft, “Alabama Moon” comes across as a deeply satisfying, if not to say epic, read.
Moon’s father is dead. He died of a broken leg, leaving his only son and the last remaining family member to take care of the details. But this isn’t a work of historical fiction I’m talking about. Nope, Moon lives in rural contemporary Alabama and, until lately, alongside his Pap in a shelter in the woods. Moon’s Pap always rejected what he called “the government” and his son is of the same mind. Right now all he wants to do is travel to Alaska where he believes he’ll find other people just like himself hiding out in the wilderness. There is, however, a flaw or two in this plan. For one thing Moon’s only ten years old and there are people out there who are trying to put him in foster care. For another thing, one of those people is a vindictive constable. The man’s a bully with a streak of nastiness in him a mile wide and that places Moon in serious danger. Yet as the boy gains friends and deals with the civilized world, he comes to realize that perhaps his father wasn’t the be all and end all of knowledge. Moon’s on the run now, but he knows one thing. He doesn’t ever want to be alone again.
It’s odd to have a hero you don’t really need to worry all that much about. Recently I read and enjoyed, “Home, and Other Big, Fat Lies” by Jill Wolfson. That book and this have a lot of similarities. Both are about kids who love nature and want to live in it. Both end happily. But most interesting to me was the fact that both had foster children with more gumption and spit than a pack of wild dogs. You don’t worry about these kids as much as you might. Of course, another staple in both children’s literature and children’s movies is the idea of the inept adult outsmarted by the plucky kid. And usually this is a comic premise. “Home Alone” made its fortune on the idea, for crying out loud. But there’s an undercurrent of reality to “Alabama Moon”, that doesn’t see a mean stupid adult as a humorous thing. It sees it as a very dangerous thing. You may be under the impression that Moon can take care of himself in any and all situations, but when you get to the scene where the constable catches Moon from behind and takes him into custody you feel the danger in the situation. This is a bad man, and there’s nothing funny about trying to keep away from him.
By the way, I loved how the character of Moon’s father was handled. When the book begins you’re seeing everything from Moon’s perspective. The boy reasons time after time that his father must have had his reasons for having them live in the middle of nowhere on their own. But with a slow reveal admirable in a first time author, Key makes it very clear why Moon’s father did his son a disservice. I mean, the man died because he’d rather kick the bucket then go to a doctor. As one character says, “what do you think would’ve happened to you if you’d have broken your leg?”. Key’s patience in teasing out of some of the inanities inherent in the whole rejection of society mode of thought lends this book a solid center. Kids reading this story will definitely think that it would be cool to live by themselves in the woods. Key just makes it evident how lonely and dangerous that kind of life can be.
While the ending is the ultimate in comfort and contentment, it did strike me as just a teensy bit pat. I won’t give anything away except to say that the villain gets his just desserts, and then some. Still, it doesn't come entirely out of the blue. Key is always setting up major plot points well in advance. For example, to answer the question of why Moon’s father decided to hide out in the woods we must learn that the answer lies in the man’s service during the Vietnam War. It makes sense within the context of the tale. Therefore, the constable may do stupid things but they are entirely in keeping with his character. So while his end may come across as a bit convenient, it’s also believable. Utterly believable. Less believable is when Moon fashions a bow and arrow out of his shoelaces and kills a deer with them. Your average reader is willing to go a long way to believe in Moon’s utter independence, but the shoelaces lost me. I was unaware that they made shoelaces out of such ideal material. Go fig. I should probably also mention that there’s some salty language in this book as well. There’s an occasional “ass”, and mild swearing in the book. There's also a kid living with a functioning alcoholic of a father that may catch some parents unawares. FYI.
I hate the terms “boy book” or “girl book”. They drive me nuts by limiting what kids think are the "correct" books to read. Whenever I hear someone suggest we split our library into a boy book section or a girl book section I want to tear my hair out and scream bloody murder. That said, this is a title boys will definitely gravitate towards. Reluctant boy readers are a fact. They’re out there and they’re hard to lure. And once in a while you get those boys who’ll only read survival fiction. I had a kid come in the other day and the only books I could show him that raised any interest at all were, “My Side of the Mountain” by Jean Craighead George and “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen. If you’ve a kid who thinks those books are swell (to say nothing of “A Girl Named Disaster” by Nancy Farmer, “Island of the Blue Dolphins”, by Scott O’Dell, and “Julie of the Wolves” by the aforementioned George) imagine how much they’ll enjoy “Alabama Moon”.
I’ve compared this book to a whole host of survivalist children’s fiction, but perhaps the book this reminded me of the most was Felice Holman’s classic work, “Slake’s Limbo”. Boy lives on his own, both rejecting and needing civilization. Still, there’s nothing out there quite like, “Alabama Moon”. It has a unique voice, elegant writing, and a real sense of good storytelling behind the tale. I may have had some minor points of contention here and there, but I do think this book will find an audience willing to love it if they give it a chance. Besides, it’s the ultimate kid fantasy. Moon is completely free and independent. What he chooses to do with that freedom is his choice alone.
On shelves September 5th.
Check out Watt Key's homepage for more info.
Post Review Cover Thoughts: Nice. It’s interesting but the fire and tree were two separate images, smushed together by one Mr. Symon Chow, the jacket designer. This is one of those photographic covers that actually resembles art (gasp!) to some extent. The words that float in front of the fire correspond to the letters written in the book and are appropriate to the story. Thumbs up, cover-wise.