In her first novel, Russell proves herself a graceful stylist but less assured at constructing a plot. Josh's older brother, Toby, has died three months ago, before summer vacation began, and Josh's unarticulated mourning has turned him into a loner. Wandering near his home, in Florida orange-grove territory, he finds a shack inhabited by an elderly artist, Mattie, and her "kin," a slow but cherubic girl named Bess Ann. The unlikeliness of this sudden discovery of neighbors is compounded by the revelation that the two knew Toby well; although Toby and Josh were best friends as well as brothers, Toby, for no discernible reason, never mentioned the shack. Over the course of the next month, Josh pretends, to himself as well to Mattie and Bess Ann, that Toby is simply away at summer camp. Mattie and Bess Ann seem more like types than like original characters, and their role in Josh's emotional recovery is predictable. On the other hand, Russell develops Josh's character subtly and insightfully, coloring her understated prose with brief, evocative descriptions. Josh's grief, for example, is said to be ``hiding like some catfish underneath everything.'' Language like this makes Russell worth watching. Ages 10-14. (Oct.)
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Gr 4-7To avoid his parents and to escape from thinking about his older brother Toby's death, 13-year-old Josh often runs through the orange groves surrounding his Lakeland, FL, home. One day he runs farther than ever and discovers the isolated home of an elderly woman, Mattie, and her granddaughter Bess Ann. He learns that Toby had been building a fence in order to keep their chickens in the yard. Josh can't face up to telling them that Toby is dead, so he decides to complete the project himself. Through his daily visits, he develops a close relationship with Mattie and Bess Ann. When he discovers that Bess Ann can't read, the boy begins to teach her. Eventually, he tells Mattie that Toby was killed by a train, a fact that she had already known. By talking about his brother, Josh is finally able to work through his grief and, at the same time, realize that he is a different person from his brother. Fast-paced, this novel delves into the grieving process of a young boy. By not revealing the details of Toby's death until the very end, a parallel is drawn since Josh doesn't want to face them either. This skillfully developed novel will be as well received as Marion Dane Bauer's On My Honor (Clarion, 1986).Bonnie L. Raasch, C. B. Vernon Middle School, Marion, IA
In this moving first novel, Josh, 13, must struggle through his grief alone after the sudden death of his older brother, Toby. Although the Harding family is loving and demonstrative, the parents are incapable of relieving Josh's pain; he prefers to flee from his loss by racing through the nearby orange grove. Here, in a cramped, backwoods shack, Josh befriends Mattie and her illiterate granddaughter, Bess Ann, friends of Toby's who are unaware of his death. Through them, he finds a way to keep his brother alive. Some readers will raise an eyebrow at Russell's portrayal of Josh and Mattie's video-free homes this small Florida town: The Hardings live modestly off the father's income as a woodworker, while Mattie doesn't even own a phone. As the summer progresses, Josh finishes a fence his brother had started for Mattie and teaches Bess Ann to read. Russell's metaphor of mending extends to the boy, as well, who realizes he must tell Mattie the truth. While the confession scene is more gentle than dramatic, it is nevertheless an effective and realistic catharsis. More than bibliotherapy, this is an uplifting tale about the resilience and capacity of the human heart.