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Review of the Day: Leepike Ridge by N.D. Wilson

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I am a traitor to my sex. I must be. All evidence clearly points in that direction. If 2007 is remembered as anything, for me it will be the year of Boy Books That I Adored While My Female Friends Slowly Shook Their Heads. First I fell head-over-heels gaga for Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Girls didn’t always get the jokes. Then Atherton #1: The House of Power struck me as particularly fun. Blank stares from my female co-workers. Now I’ve read “Leepike Ridge” and if I am not physically shoving this book down your throat it is only because I have faith that this THIS book must surely be the exciting boy-centered tale that’s going to win over mutual genders. It’s got archaeology… and sheer death-defying, nail-biting survival! There’s a practical tale of a boy finding a new father figure… and evil villains who will kill any man foolish enough to stand between them and TREASURE! Add in the fact that the writing itself is remarkably good (I used an unprecedented six colored tabs on cool sentences in the first chapter alone), the plot riveting, and the book itself a kind of Hatchet meets Holes and you’ve got yourself one heckuva debut novel, my friend. Boys, girls, small genderless rocks, EVERYONE should love and appreciate this book. And if I hear anyone so much as yawn in its direction, heads are gonna roll.

Things could be better. Two years ago Thomas Hammond’s father died in a plane crash and since that time the boy and his mother have lived quite simply in their weirdo home on top of a rock. Now Elizabeth, Tom’s mom, is looking like she might marry the dweeby schoolteacher, Jeffrey, who’s been courting her and her son is not pleased with the situation. In a fit of pique Tom finds a bit of styrofoam packing material and proceeds to lazily ride it down the local stream. Then he falls asleep and before he knows it the foam is sucked into a series of underground caverns with Tom just barely clinging to his life. And then, THEN he finds himself stuck in a world where there is no escape, no light, no food, and no comfort. As Tom finds two unlikely allies in his new prison, Elizabeth remains certain that her boy is alive and finds herself facing a crew of men intent upon locating the treasure they’re so very certain lies wherever Tom might be.

Okay, so I don’t think I can get away with discussing this book with you without bringing up a cool spoiler or two once in a while. If you haven’t read this title yet, here’s my summary in brief. Book good. Read book. Love book. Persuade friends and family to read book. Got it? Cool. On to spoilerville.

Let’s begin by talking writing. Wilson’s slick, you know. The kind of author who can get away with introducing his hero’s age by writing something like, “Tom had traveled around the sun eleven times when the delivery truck brought his mother’s newest fridge…” That takes guts. Anyone can write, “Tom was eleven” but “Tom had traveled around the sun eleven times”??? Here then is a quick sampling of moments in the book that struck me as particularly nice.

Conveying an unspoken emotion: “He stared at the last cookie in his hand, counted the chocolate chips, and then slid the whole thing into his mouth,” or, “Tom went red on the outside. Inside, he went black.”

Phrases I might want to use: “…the small flap of skinny-man fat that hung beneath his chin.”

Nature in its element: “All the normal noises of life were gone, leaving behind the whispers and conversations of moss disputing with grass over some soft piece of earth…”

Advice: “… our bellies aren’t big enough for revenge. It turns sour and eats you up.”

Basically what we’re dealing with is an adventure novel with a soul. It’s easy enough to look at this book with a clear man vs. nature eye, but there are other elements at work here. Being buried underground only to reemerge through your parents’ bed, for example. Well that’s just rife with the kind of psychoanalytic stuff teachers just go goofy for. I suppose I could work myself up and write a paper on how this book melds myth and action and creates something that’s both new and familiar, but I’ll leave that to our future scholars, if you don’t mind.
It’s rare to have a book where the mom’s dating a guy, the son objects, acts crappy about it, and in the end the mom comes to agree with the kid. That goes against everything a middle grade novel is supposed to do. Unless the man dating the mom is hitting/hitting on the kid or betting money at the track, potential stepdads are often viewed as wonderful things. Just disliking their lack of social skills or generally blah state just isn’t done. Gender was also a very interesting thing to watch in this book. As I may have mentioned, this title feels very manly. Mucho testosterone flowing here. The sole significant female in the book, really, is Elizabeth. She’s a fairly strong character, though for much of the book she’s caught in a state of limbo. Her son is missing and she can’t do anything about it. Wilson shows this without making her whiny or dull, which is no small feat. Then the story becomes almost mythical once the various villains start trying to figure out who’s going to marry her for her land. I’m wondering whether or not the Odysseus-like aspects of the story were intentional or not. Elizabeth is very much a Penelope, though her rescue is performed not by her very much dead husband but by someone else entirely. I almost found myself wondering if when I reread the book a corner of the bed would have turned out to be a living tree. No such luck, I’m afraid.
At first, when I read “Leepike Ridge”, I wanted Wilson to clarify everything. I wanted to know exactly where this book took place and exactly when. I mean, if someone gets swept underground and finds potential evidence of proto-Chinese explorers, I wanna know where geographically we’re talking about. A co-worker of mine settled on Oregon as the backdrop, and I’m cool with that. Still, as I look at the book it’s not overly concerned with placing its action in a distinct time and place. It’s a little more timeless than that (a fact which will aid it considerably when it comes time to remember it several decades down the road).

There are gaps and flaws here and there, don’t get me wrong. Once in a while Wilson will be so truly thrilled with an idea that he’ll plunge forward, leaving his audience stumbling behind in his wake. For example, it’s unclear what, if any, relationship Jeffrey has to the villains. This is the guy who was dating Tom’s mom, and when it turns out that we’re allowed to hate him because he may have been in cahoots with the bad guys all along, it’s a little random. I mean, he makes for a good snivelly villain, don’t get me wrong. His betrayal just happened to be a little too out-of-the-blue for my tastes.

I suspect that there’s more than a drop of Mr. Wilson in the character of Reg, the below-ground man Tom befriends. There’s a distaste for unquestioning academia that rings a little too true in his speeches. It’s fun to compare academic adults in kidlit. When E.L. Konigsburg does it, for example, it feels like she’d much rather be talking to the over-21 set anyway. Yet when Wilson does it, it feels just that he isn’t talking down to kids but at them as equals. There’s a difference. This book is that difference. There’s always going to be a debate over whether or not kids are going to read such n’ such a book if it’s “good”. I like to think that “Leepike Ridge” has enough guts and gore and great writing and smart characterizations to attract ALL kinds of readers, no matter who they might be. This one is worth holding onto.
First Line: “In the history of the world there have been lots of onces and lots of times, and every time has had a once upon it.”

Notes on the Cover: I like it. I like it better when you pull it out and see it in its entirety, but I like it. You can really see (on the back cover) how Tom’s house is chained to a rock. You get a sense of the sheer scale of the home. Plus you’ve a perfect view of the stream below as it meanders and tries to look innocent. Any cover that has a vague sense of vertigo to it has my love.

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Elizabeth Bird About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently New York Public Library's Youth Materials Collections Specialist. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of NYPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. BOB says:

    MORE DETAIL!

  2. megan says:

    i need to know if this is a good book for my 8th grade book report?!?!!? help!!!!

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  1. [...] send your pictures of the week to sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com. Random House authors N.D. Wilson, Jeanne Birdsall, and Rebecca Stead at a lunch with librarians in New York City, discussing writing [...]