Carl Hiaasen Keeps Them (and Us) White-knuckled

Chapter One is a short story in and of itself.   A brilliant one.  We’re in middle school biology class at a mediocre private day school in Florida, taught by the tyrannical Mrs. Starch– who, Hiaasen alerts us in sentence one, will mysteriously disappear the next day.  But today, she’s twirling her Ticonderoga #2 pencil in a way that inspires fear among her students.  Mrs. Starch is a take-no-prisoners, polyester-pant-suit-clad biology zealot, who “wears her dyed blond hair piled to one side of her head, like a sand dune.”  She takes pleasure in grilling students on assigned reading and humiliating those who fail to answer correctly.  Her target today is Smoke, the Truman School’s taciturn loner who, BTW, has a track record with pyromania. Suffice it to say he hasn’t done the reading, and what ensues is a tension fraught face-off, a bullfight performed in front of an otherwise law abiding class of kids.  The incident, shared with us via the main character Nick, is horrifying both because the teacher finds it so easy to ruthlessly bait a student and because Smoke fumes (excuse the pun) with a dangerous anger unfit for a middle schooler.  I won’t tell how it ends, but I will say I actually gasped I was so surprised. Gasped– no kidding.

Smoke doesn’t show up for the Biology field trip to the Black Vine Swamp the next day.  Mrs. Starch disappears at the end of it.  Was the piercing cry from the woods everyone heard a rare Florida panther, or something more sinister?   Is it Smoke stalking Mrs. Starch?   The half-hearted investigation put forth by Truman’s headmaster turns up nothing. Nick and his friend Marta, unsatisfied with the adults’ handling of the mystery, take it upon themselves to solve it.  It’s a wild ride filled with vivid characters and pierced with heartbreaking realism (Nick’s Iraqi War veteran father, Smoke’s broken home).  Nick and Marta manage not only to find Mrs. Starch and prove Smoke’s innocence, but uncover an illegal oil drilling scheme threatening the Black Vine Swamp and the endangered Florida panther.

Carl Hiaasen has won multiple awards for his books and frequents the NYT Bestseller List, so I may not be introducing you to anything new here.  But if you and your favorite ‘tween don’t know him yet, it’s time.  Hiaasen writes “eco-thrillers”–  books in which empowered kids bring greedy, crooked, defilers of the natural world to justice.  He’s a satirist at heart, and like the best of them he manages to walk the tightrope between the ridiculous and the painfully true, entertaining us all the while. It’s the kind of writing usually reserved for adult audiences.  True, Scat, with its layered, fast-paced plot and multifaceted characters, is best suited to a 10+ audience, but it reminds us of how keen an eye young people have for seeing hypocrisy, and how sometimes it takes clear-eyed, youthful idealism to combat it.

Other books for kids by Hiaasen:  Newbery Award Winner Hoot, and Flush, both highly recommended.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. julietruekingsley
    Aug 22, 2010 @ 09:42:48

    Loved Flush. I’ll certainly check this book out, maybe today.


  2. Julie Otte
    Aug 23, 2010 @ 12:18:33

    I’m gonna go broke buying all these books! I love this blog!


  3. Cameron Kelly Rosenblum
    Aug 23, 2010 @ 15:14:11

    I know how you feel! Books are taking over my house. Thanks for reading!


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