Idolizing an author, any author, does no one any good. The reader who expects only pearls of infinite wisdom to drop from the fingertips of their self-appointed god too soon finds that most writers are only human in the end. Usually, though, it is their humanity that is their finest quality anyway. I was pretty sure thought that as I read through Deborah Wiles’, "The Aurora County All-Stars", it wasn’t my adoration of her previous novel Each Little Bird That Sings that made my pleasure of this latest one so difficult. I’ve read enough favorite authors to know that every book is a new challenge. Under normal circumstances, and with every book she writes, Wiles walks a fine line between wisdom and a kind of risky indulgence. You can get away with a lot in a children’s book in terms of theme and adult references (in this case, Walt Whitman) just as long as the title hangs together successfully as a whole. I have never idolized Ms. Wiles, and so I tell you now that my disappointment with "Aurora County" springs not out of a sense of betrayal or disillusionment. I’m just sorry that this title didn’t have the verve and flow it so desperately needed to retain the interest of the reader. There is much to love here, but it has been hidden behind some truly unfortunate pacing.
Old Mean-Man Boyd is dead, to begin with. House Jackson saw him die. Saw him draw his last breath on a warm summer morning and secretly called the ambulance to take the man away. On the one hand, this is good news. Now House can play more baseball and hope to beat the only other team around for miles on July 4th, the sole day of the year that they play. On the other hand, House grew close to the old man as he read to him. So close that he hasn’t told anyone, not even his best friend Cleebo, about what he was doing all this time. Yet even as House is freed from his obligations to the newly deceased, a new threat is making the 4th of July game look near impossible. A pageant is to be scheduled for the same day and House’s entire team has been signed up by their mamas to partake of twelve-year-old Frances Schotz’s directorial debut. Now House must find out how to rescue his team from a fate worse than death, all the while unraveling the mystery of his deceased mom and her celebration of Walt Whitman’s symphony true.
On a first read of this book I couldn’t put my finger on the problem. What was it about this book that came so close to pleasing, then strayed? Why was Wiles failing to touch the heart of the reader? I examined the scenes, one by one, but it wasn’t until I spoke with a colleague that everything fell into place. The heart of this problem lies in the first sentence of the author’s Acknowledgments. "The characters in this book set up a clangor in my mind and heart a few weeks before I was invited to write a serial story for the Boston Globe, which is where this novel’s seeds were planted." Suddenly everything fell into place. "Aurora County" proceeds at quite a nice clip until just about Chapter Five. Then, as House and his cohorts meet up with Finesse for the first time, the setting never changes until well past the end of chapter eight. With each of these chapters I found the action bogging down, the characters repeating themselves, and the story becoming increasingly repetitious. In a staged production this might be fine, but when you’re reading a book for children you need your minor scenes to switch about a little. Particularly if they turn out to be of negligible importance within the full scheme of the book. It was odd, to be sure. Then I read the words "serial story" and everything was clear. I’m sure that changes must have been made between the selections of this tale published in the Boston Globe and the book we have before us. If so, this is a case of a writer loving an original work too well to give it the pruning necessary to make it into a children’s book classic.
With Wiles’ loquaciousness to deal with (I’m one to talk, I know) the rest of the book didn’t quite pull together well enough to allow me to accept that a twelve-year-old Frances could say of House’s symphony true, "I think it’s what’s left when all the noise stops, when you get quiet and listen for you own true heart." Or to think that the fight between House and his best friend Cleebo could arise violently out of almost nothing just for the sake of the story’s arc. Cleebo betrays House because he feels that House betrays him first. Just the same, Cleebo’s crime against his friend is so much worse than House’s that reading it you’re left incredulous and just a bit peeved when the two make up at the end. Friendships in children’s novels are almost holy things, but I didn’t see any divinity in House and Cleebo’s love here.
(CONTINUED IN PART TWO)