Charlie and his mother are back in Florida for the funeral of his step-dad’s high school coach. They are surrounded by fields of sugar cane, and it’s cane-burning time. Charlie finds out that he has a cousin, Cotton, and as the boys run through the fiery fields chasing rabbits, Charlie begins to have hallucinations about evil, undead creatures that smell horrible and bring up all kinds of anger and hatred in the humans they encounter. When Cotton brings Charlie to the sacrificial stone where dead animals are laid, the boys are surprised by Lio, a heroic young man wearing a beat-up helmet and wielding a sword. Strangely, the adults don’t think Charlie is hallucinating, and they seem to know a lot more about the area’s dark history than the boys do. As the evil creatures draw nearer, the townspeople begin to fight and riot for no reason. Cotton is badly hurt, and it’s up to Charlie to save his life by struggling to undo a curse he doesn’t understand.
Wilson draws on the story of Beowulf to craft a modern tale dealing with small-town football, family ties, and the reality of evil. Charlie’s biological father is white, and his step-father is black, and racial diversity is portrayed within one mostly loving group of people. The monsters are called “the Gren,” after Grendel, and the Grens’ mother is the power behind it all. I particularly enjoyed that the wicked mother is tall and thin, whereas the good mom, Mrs. Wisdom, is “soft” and wrinkled. Of course. This story is quite frightening at times, with breathless chase scenes and fantastical places mixing with the swamps of Florida’s sugar-cane area. Gators and Gren, panthers and burial mounds, cypress and sorceresses.
Nathan Wilson has had the sort of classical education that allows him to throw Latin phrases into his heroes’ mouths, and he writes complex books for kids who are good readers. While his prose can be beautifully poetic at times, it is always accessible to his young audience. He is a Christian, and although he doesn’t write “Christian books” (can a book be saved?), he writes with the worldview of good vs. evil and heroic virtues that will resonate with believers. It’s not fashionable these days to say “boy books” and “girl books,” but Wilson writes excellent books for boys. If you’ve been raising your kids on Narnia and Lord of the Rings, here’s your next writer, particularly his “100 Cupboards” series.
A heart-pounding story for courageous kids from nine to fifteen.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.