In a notice of the author’s upcoming appearance at Normandale Community College, Jay Gabler succinctly summarizes Kelly Barnhill’s The Mostly True Story of Jack: “A boy travels to Hazelwood, Iowa to stay with family and finds himself receiving a lot more attention than he ever did at home—some good, some bad, and all of it linked to mysterious supernatural forces.”
I read the book a few months ago, and procrastinated in reviewing because, well…things happen. News happens, and that distracts me from non-deadline writing. Besides, as Courtney Algeo wrote in her recent series, “essentially, book reviews are part of a larger, dignified conversation about literature,” and I am just not ready for dignified conversations about literature. (Full disclosure: Kelly Barnhill is the sister of TCDP writer Sheila Regan—a fact I discovered only when I read the thank you note that appears after the final page of the novel.)
I love reading. When I was very young, my mother tried to limit my reading to an hour a day. I cheated constantly, and lied about it, providing fodder for weekly confessions. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I disobeyed six times and was angry at my sisters and brothers ten times.” Yep, disobeyed every chance I got, from reading in the haymow to reading in the closet with a flashlight after everyone else was asleep.
I would have loved The Mostly True Story of Jack then, even more than I enjoyed it now. Sure, it’s “juvenile” or “young adult” fiction, but so what? That’s some of the best reading around, and many of my favorite authors and series are in the young adult genre. Like the best of these books, Jack has plot, action, well-developed characters. Jack, Wendy, Frankie, Anders, Clayton—and the grown-ups, too—are all caught up in the same supernatural mystery, but each has a clearly-defined, complex personality. The story includes a classic battle between good and bad, but the human characters have believable touches of both.
All in all, Jack is a good read. When the somewhat convoluted plot meanders, sharply descriptive prose still holds the reader’s interest:
“Listen, Wendy,” their mother said in the other room. “This is important.” Frankie seized his chance.
He slipped out the back door before he heard any more. His mother, he knew, was about to launch into a lecture that Wendy like to call “The Value of Good Sense,” or “How Not to Be a Pain in Your Mother’s Rear End.” He figured he had at least forty-five minutes—maybe more. He eased the screen door shut, hopped on his bike, and rode swiftly to the edge of town.
Jack is Minneapolis writer Kelly Barnhill’s first novel, but surely not her last. The final chapters hint at a sequel. Whether or not that materializes, I’m guessing that Barnhill has plots and characters besides these percolating in her writer’s brain, and I’ll be happy to read the next book she produces.