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Book review: Crackling, down-home yarn set in the bayou

By Sarah Sullivan

"The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp." By Kathi Appelt. Atheneum. 327 pages. $16.99. Ages 8 and up.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Lilting rhythms of the Texas bayou rise between the lines of Kathi Appelt's latest novel for young people, "The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp."

As in her two previous novels, "The Underneath," a Newbery Honor Book, and the highly acclaimed "Keeper," a National Book Award finalist, Appelt spins multiple storylines that intersect and converge, building to a rollicking and cinematic conclusion.

The true blue scouts of the title are raccoon brothers Bingo and J'miah, charged "by the Sugar Man himself back in the year Aught One" with the duty of guarding the swamp. Should trouble arise, they are to wake up the Sugar Man, a huge and hairy Sasquatch-type figure who sleeps with his pet rattlesnake Gertrude in the swamp near the muscovado sugarcane of the Bayou Tourterelle.

Uppermost in the minds of the scouts are the wild hogs of the Farrow Gang that harbor an insatiable craving for cane sugar. Readers soon come to understand that it is two humans who pose a far greater threat to the swamp. Greedy developer Sonny Boy Beaucoup and World Champion Gator Wrestler Jaeger Stitch have plans to turn the swamp into a giant theme park.

Meanwhile, 12-year-old Chap Brayburn, who is still mourning the death of his beloved grandfather Audie, needs to figure out how to raise a "boatload" of cash to save his family's Paradise Pies cafe from the unholy plans of Sonny Boy Beaucoup. Toss in a mystery involving a photograph of an ivory-billed woodpecker, and you have a novel that is part tall tale, part ecological adventure and fully as sweet as the sugar pies of the Paradise Pies cafe.

Told in 104 short chapters and filled with down-home folksy expressions and syncopated syntax, this is a book that begs to be read aloud. Appelt has a gift for crafting tales that suggest ancient myth, when in reality the stories and characters are entirely her own.

Full disclosure here: Kathi Appelt was one of my workshop leaders at Vermont College, and I have turned to her for writing advice on occasion. Not only is she a gifted writer and poet, but also a wonderful teacher.

Readers who enjoy a crackling good yarn infused with a bit of poetry (especially when describing the bayou country) will enjoy sinking their teeth into this story.

Sarah Sullivan is the author of five books, including "All That's Missing" (Candlewick Press). She can be reached at sarahglenn1@gmail.com or through her website at www.sarahsullivanbooks.com.


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