Book Review: “Thunder Run” (“Dactyl Hill Squad” #3) by Daniel José Older

Whew. Like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve had a hard time focusing since quarantine began in March – even on reading. Amid everything going on in the world and everything it’s made me feel (anxiety over the virus; loneliness and sorrow at being cut off from family and friends; outrage over the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and far too many other Black people at the hands of the police; heartbreak and disillusionment over a certain author’s very public transphobia), it seems especially cruel that my brain decided to take from me the one outlet I have always relied on to help me cope. I’m working on finding that reading joy again, and if something similar has been going on with you, we’re in this together. Maybe Dactyl Hill Squad will be a good place for you to begin! It was for me.

Thunder Run is the third installment in Daniel José Older’s Civil War alt-history MG series, which explores a world in which dinosaurs can be found in 19th-century America. The series’ hero, Magdalys Roca, has a special dino-wrangling ability, which makes her invaluable to the Union Army – and especially dangerous to the Confederates, who have already made multiple attempts to take out Magdalys and her friends, all escapees from New York’s Colored Orphan Asylum.

The book picks up immediately where Freedom Fire leaves off, with Magdalys finally reunited with her brother Montez but surrounded by Confederate troops in Atchafalaya swamp. As Magdalys and Montez – along with the other troops in Montez’s all-Black regiment and fellow orphan Mapper – wiggle their way out of danger, they discover a new threat to the Union cause.

In Mexico, allies of the Confederacy are closing in on the troops of the democratically elected government led by Benito Juárez. If they succeed, the Union will face a war on two fronts, making their chances of victory very slim. Only Magdalys can prevent the decimation of Juárez’s troops, but only if she can get there in time, and only if she can learn to fully control her abilities.

Like the two previous books in the series, Thunder Run is action-packed and fast-paced from the very beginning, sure to keep young readers on the edge of their seats. But it’s not the action that keeps me coming back to these books time and time again. It’s everything else that Older achieves through and alongside that action that makes this series such a remarkable achievement. For one, this short novel contains a more nuanced and informative account of the Civil War than I received in school, for all that it prominently features dinosaurs. Older makes the major tactical movements of the Civil War, and their stakes, digestible for young readers (and even older readers like me) without ever relying on digression. Honestly, I learned a lot.

Older also intervenes in popular narratives of the Civil War by refusing to valorize all members of the Union army just because they are on the “right” side of the war (another nuance missing from my own grade-school education about the Civil War). Magdalys and her friends recognize that their work for the Union is vital because it is the most expedient route to freedom, not because white Northerners are free from racist attitudes. This is also Magdalys’s “Dagobah” moment, when she begins to grapple with how to most effectively develop and use her abilities. She learns that anger, be it ever so justified, can sustain your power for only so long without the fuel of love and compassion, a powerful model for young readers, especially Black children, in learning how to find the strength to persevere in their own fights for justice.

”It was love that would see her through, right till the end, till right now. Love would be the unstoppable spark, lighting her sorrow and rage together.” 

I have always thought these books were something special, and our present moment only underscores how desperately we need them. In one moment, Juárez tells Magdalys, “You don’t have to apologize for the terrible things that cruel men have taught you to believe. You just have to learn when the real world shows you to be lies, that’s all.” That’s a lesson a lot of people on my timeline, especially white people, still need to learn.

If you ever believed that books can help change the world but are having a hard time remembering it now, I suggest picking up this series immediately.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher, Scholastic, for review.

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