Random House sent me a copy of this latest book by the author of the 100 Cupboards and Ashtown Burials series. I thank the author and his wife for arranging it, and apologize for once again taking so long over such a short book. Released in April 2014, it is as Heather Wilson described it to me, a mash-up of “Beowulf + football + Florida swamps.” As befits a book based on an epic poem—the classic work of Old English literature, in case you slept through your high school literature class—N. D. Wilson’s retelling is filled with heroes and magic and dreadful monsters, features a seemingly invincible being of ancient and evil power, and has the ring of poetry flowing through its paragraphs of prose.
Charlie Reynolds has come to the town of Taper, Florida, for the funeral of his stepfather’s high school football coach. Not far off the shore of Lake Okeechobee, the town is nestled among sugar cane fields and alligator-haunted swamps. It also has a lot of history for Charlie’s parents. Not only his stepfather, but also his abusive biological father came from there, played high school football together, went to college together, and both became professional football players. Later, when Bobby Reynolds’ violent side landed him in prison, Prester Mack picked up the pieces of his broken family.
Now that Mack is to become Taper’s new coach, their family will be starting over in a place that already has complicated memories stored up for them. Even before the funeral is over, Charlie finds himself running through the cane fields with a cousin on his stepfather’s side. Then he discovers a sibling he never knew existed. And then his father himself turns up. All these surprise reunions would be tricky enough at the best of times. But Charlie has to cope with them while running from evil, undead creatures whose foul smell triggers violent emotions of hate, anger, and envy.
These Stanks, or Grens, as various characters call them, look like zombies. They smell like zombies. They are about as talkative as zombies. But unlike zombies, they can move fast, can attack with strength, and can use weapons accurately. Worse, they are directed by an intelligence that has an evil purpose for the people of Taper, and perhaps the whole world. Till now they have been held in check by a network of protective stones, and by an armored man named Lio who lives in the swamp with his two pet panthers and chatters in a blend of English and Creole French. After Charlie and his cousin Cotton see Lio stealing the old coach’s body from the churchyard, and fighting off an attack by one of the Stanks, Cotton disappears and Charlie is drawn into a creepy mystery, which in turn leads to a heroic quest.
Finally the fate of the whole town comes down to the actions of a kid who doesn’t know where he belongs, and who has barely begun to understand what is going on around him. The life or death of everyone he cares about, including some he scarcely knows, will depend on a boy whose strength is running out. When his only chance of success involves calling a brood of monsters to himself and following them to the mother of all monsters, he will need to find speed, strength, and allies in unexpected places.
I honestly thought this book was going to be about boys running barefoot in the burning cane-fields, chasing rabbits flushed out of their warrens by the smoke. I expected the poetry to be about that active, outdoorsy, athletic life, and the drama to be about the dangers and conflicts that arise from it. I really wasn’t paying much attention when Heather dropped her hint about Beowulf. I mean, really! In Florida? But she wasn’t kidding, and nor was N. D. kidding around. If any book can translate Beowulf into a modern setting, using the style of modern literature in a creative and even poetic way, all while carrying its appeal directly to today’s antsy, restless boys, it would have to be pretty much exactly like this book.
Besides the two trilogies already mentioned (and Heather assures me there will be more Ashtown Burials books), N. D. Wilson’s only other Young Adult title is Leepike Ridge, a story about an eleven-year-old castaway’s quest for survival. His output also includes several devotional non-fiction titles, a textbook on rhetoric, and several children’s picture-books on topics evenly divided between Bible stories and ninjas. He seems to be an interesting guy. He definitely writes interesting books, including some that have my highest recommendation. The present title is a short book, and so a low-risk place to start. If you’re thinking about exploring further, be sure to try 100 Cupboards.