Fuse #8

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Review of the Day: A Small White Scar

Cowboys are cool. They always have been and they always will be. It’s just a fact of life, really. Like pirates, they capture the childish imagination (though we've yet to host an International Talk Like a Cowboy Day as of yet). Who wouldn’t want to be able to say they could rope a buck, tame a steer, or ride a bull? It’s kind of funny, then, that there aren’t that many cowboy books out there for kids. You get the regular smattering of picture books, of course, and there’s usually at least one non-fiction title published every year for the true fans. Chapter books, however, are less common than you might think. Thanks goodness for “A Small White Scar”, then, eh? Part cowboy drama, part tale of brotherly love and hate, first-time novelist (and east Colorado native) K.A. Nazum gives this book her all. It’s a nice voice and a nice book and I think that that’s all there is to say about that.

1940. Colorado. The Bennon Cattle Company. Mesa de Maya. It’s the only place Will Bennon has ever called his home and if he doesn’t get out of there as fast as humanly possible he’s going to burst into two. For fifteen years Will has grown up alongside his twin brother Denny and for the last seven he’s had to “play nursemaid”. Denny was born, as they say on the farm, “simple”, but his devotion to Will knows no bounds. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that when Will lits out to rope some fame and fortune at a rodeo in La Junta, Denny follows with inescapable tenacity. Will’s fighting his desire to escape Denny at whatever the cost and to help his brother as he’s done all his life. To his mind it comes down to this: If he stays on the ranch he’ll go stir-crazy and never make a name for himself. But does that mean hurting the person who loves him best in the whole wide world? Is it worth it in the end?

To Will, his father’s admonishment to “Take care of your brother. Look after him”, is the worst thing that could ever happen to him. “It took me a while to figure it out, but by the time I was twelve or so, I knew the only way I could ever escape the trap of those words was to chew my leg off just like a coyote would in order to free himself.” So it’s just bad luck that that leg happens to be Denny. The authorial choice of making Denny Will’s twin rather than his younger brother interested me particularly. There’s a reoccurring motif in the book where Will dreams that he and Denny have switched bodies and now he’s the one with problems and Denny is in his own skin. Right from the start Nuzum is challenging the reader. She’s throwing a great big There But For the Grace of God Go I in your face and I’m darned if it doesn’t make the reader stop and think a while. I mean, it could have easily have been Will rather than Denny born with what I suspect might be (though it’s never named) Down Syndrome. Which might be fairly impressive in and of itself, except that she manages to do it by page FIVE. Nicely played, Ms. Nuzum.

Nuzum also gets the flavor of the West down pat. You understand the lure of such a life and the desire that drives Will to be a part of it. The story of whether or not he can escape his job as his brother’s keeper is completely understandable too. Will feels that his father ignores his other talents and sees him entirely as a babysitter rather than a cowhand. Fortunately his dad gets a say at the end of the book that shows a different point of view and, more importantly, he apologises.

So will kids read this book? I think so. Sometimes a book is only as good as its first chapter. We’ve all gone into bookstores and perused the first few lines of a story in an attempt to determine how exciting the book to come will be. Well this book has rattlers, killer coyotes, a near-death injury, bull-riding, a treacherous river, and a fight, alongside a good story and some fine writing. If that’s not enough for a child reader you know, hand ‘em some fantasy and be done with ‘em. If, on the other hand, they’re interested in some historical fiction with a bit of bite and a Western taste, “A Small White Scar” has their number. A smart debut.

Notes On the Cover: Well, we’ve yet another disembodied kid on the cover, but this is pretty classy fare all the same. My husband took one look at it and said, “That’s a pretty bad-ass looking book.” Yup. Once more the good people at Getty Images (this time one Ms. Mary Steinbacher) have given us a truly interesting photograph for our perusal. I appreciated that someone took the time to give the legs on the cover some truly worn-down cowboy boots and a pair of jeans that have seen better days. If this had shown nice n’ new duds I’d have been a teensy bit perturbed. What I really loved, though, was that this book says “COWBOY” all over it but avoids the clichés. Yeah, there’s a cowboy hat shown here, but only its shadow. The lighting gives the whole venture a soft late afternoon vibe. I haven’t tested this book on a kid yet, but I suspect this has definite appeal. Dunno if I entirely support the subtitle, “Divided By Adventure . . . United By Blood”, since “adventure” isn’t exactly what’s dividing these two. Otherwise, there isn’t much to find fault with here. Well done, Harper Collins. Getty Images wins another round.


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