CM . . .
. Volume XVIII Number 9. . . .October 28, 2011
Vancouver, BC: Tradewind Books, 2011.
147 pp., pbk., $12.95.
Grades 6-9 / Ages 11-14.
Review by Karen Boyd.
It wasn't until the last of the children had straggled away at the end of the afternoon and we were putting away crayons and paper that Maggie spoke to me about the sheriff's visit.
"Horse-thievery? Robbery?" she'd taken off her glasses and was looking at me with real concern in her eyes-those blue eyes that I felt I could slip and fall into as easily as a swimming hole on the hottest day of summer.
And so I spilled out the rest of my story-all that had happened to me after coming to Cutter's Creek. I told her about borrowing Polish for the ride into Jackson Junction and that the money I'd taken was only half of what belonged to me.
"Albert or Virgil must have got the sheriff in Jackson Junction to send out a notice."
"But if he got his horse back-why?" Maggie moved closer to me and put her hand gently on my good arm, like a whisper.
"You'd have to know Albert and Virgil. They knew they owed me that money, but for me to take it-that's something they'd never forgive." My voice choked as Maggie's fingers give my arm a squeeze. "Your dad and your uncle-they won't want me to stay."
"It's Okay, "she said. "It'll be our secret."
Fifteen-year-old Leroy Barnstable finds his life dramatically changed. His father is dead, his mother is in a wheelchair, the family home is gone, and Leroy and his mother move in with an aunt and two abusive cousins. When yet another tragedy strikes, Leroy takes matters into his own hands and runs away. His path crosses a Chautauqua show, a travelling group of performers who would bring entertainment and education to small communities during the summer. With his artistic talent, Leroy uses his nickname "Doodlebug" to find a place in the group of travellers. During the summer season, Doodlebug finds himself watching his own back and also helping his new "family" escape from their past secrets.
Glen Huser has written an entertaining and heart-warming story that captures both the innocence and the hardship of the 1920s. The story is fast-paced and balances nicely the action and the character development. Leroy "Doodlebug" is caught in circumstances that force him to make difficult moral decisions. The two cousins are withholding his inheritance while they make him virtually a slave. Leroy chooses to steal the money that he feels is rightfully his, but it makes him a thief nonetheless. These dilemmas are also mirrored in the Chautauqua characters. Robert Tremain, one of the actors, is forced to borrow money from a "loan shark" to pay for his daughter's eye surgery. When the loan is called in, the whole company is put in danger. This theme of doing the wrong thing for the right reason echoes throughout the book. The characters are, for the most part, likable and relatable. Even Seamus, the loan shark, has redeeming features by the end of the story.
The Runaway is a very enjoyable read. The whole Chautauqua setting is interesting from an historical perspective. It is set just before both the Great Depression, and the popularity of motion pictures or, as Poindexter, the head of the Chautauqua, describes them:
"A passing fancy. Have you ever sampled the wares of a nickelodeon? Sad-very sad! Flickering black –and-white images. The human body cut into bits and pieces. Soundless, except for fractured tunes from some out of tune piano played by a third-rate musician. And they say this jittery lantern show could be the death knell of the Chautauqua! Do you see me trembling in fear?" (p. 115)
The well-constructed historical setting, great character development, and a fast-paced story contributes to the likeability of this book. Although the ending wraps up almost too neatly to be true, readers will be anxious enough for Leroy "Doodlebug" to have a happy ending that they will be willing to suspend their disbelief. The epilogue, written when Leroy is an adult, is really unnecessary for the story but is a nice addition to answer those "what then?" questions.
Karen Boyd is a doctoral candidate in language and literacy and an instructor in the Bachelor of Education program at the University of Manitoba
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