Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Philbrick, Rodman. The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg (4 stars out of 4)
Funny books often contain unusual settings; the juxtaposition of content and setting is often the vehicle for the humor. Gennifer Choldenko’s Al Capone Does My Shirts takes place at Alcatraz, one of the most depressing locales of the last century, yet I laughed; Adam Rex’s The True Meaning of Smekday occurs during the potential end of the world, yet I laughed. In this same vein, the Civil War, usually the setting of somber books like Paul Fleischman’s Bull Run, is now the backdrop for Rodman Philbrick’s very entertaining new book, The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg. Mr. Philbrick has struck gold by combining the elements of adventure and suspense from The Last Book in the Universe with the strong character development of Freak the Mighty. The result is a clever romp both fun and serious simultaneously.
Not only is 12-year-old Homer P. Figg an orphan, but he is soon to be alone as well. Homer and his brother Harold lost their parents before the war, and they are now under the care of their Uncle Squinton Leach, “. . . the meanest man in the entire state of Maine. I tell a lie—there was a meaner man in Bangor once, that poisoned cats for fun, but old Squint was the hardest man in Somerset County” (8). When Harold pushes Uncle Squinton into a mud pile after Squint almost hit the starving Homer for eating a piece of bread from the pig slop, he is illegally sold into the army for profit, even though he is only seventeen: “That’s what Squint done with Harold, sold him like a slave for two hundred and fifty dollars, even though he’s white and supposed to be free” (22). Homer escapes and commits to finding his brother before he begins fighting, beginning the adventure of a lifetime. His quest begins by being kidnapped by two slave bounty hunters who want Homer to spy on wealthy abolitionist Jebediah Brewster so they can locate twenty runaway slaves and collect the reward. Homer is taken in by Brewster and is shown the runaway slaves, then instructed by Brewster to make an ethical decision: report back to the kidnappers Smelt and Stink, run away, or stay and be safe. When Brewster’s housekeeper complains that it is unfair to give a boy such a difficult decision, Brewster sighs but cannot help the situation: “‘I know,’ says Mr. Brewster, sounding regretful. ‘But boys are fighting this cruel war. Boys are enslaved, and boys own slaves. None may escape. All must decide’” (64). Homer’s decision leads him eventually to Gettysburg, where the battlefield is more frightening than any beating from Uncle Squinton or threat from kidnappers.
Rodman Philbrick has produced a winner with The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg. It is both fun and serious, both entertaining and thought-provoking, fantastic yet tinged with a healthy dose of reality. Most chapters cleverly begin with an anecdote from Homer’s past or from the history of the area, adding local color, while the story itself moves a mile a minute through the Northeast of the 1860s. Although such scenes as Homer the Pig Boy are funny, there are plenty of sobering moments to provide balance, such as the scene in which Jebediah Brewster confides in and trusts the oft-dishonest Homer with the welfare of twenty human beings. Since the protagonist is a semi-professional liar to begin with, the reader does not have to rely on the narrator for the truth; this sets the story free and allows Mr. Philbrick to have fun with Homer and his adventures. It simply does not matter whether the story happened as related by Homer; veracity becomes irrelevant in the face of a good old-fashioned yarn.

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