This slim fictional collection of letters from, to, and about a disturbed 12-year-old boy reads more like a writing-class assignment than a debut novel. At the start, Benjamin is heading to summer camp in New Hampshire, and the first section contains letters from his parents, his psychiatrist, the owners of the camp, his counselor, and a few other bits. Little of this rings true: How many summer camps would be willing to take on a child who is frequently seen ``rocking back and forth, playing intensely with the dirt, laughing when he was alone''? A child whose psychiatrist describes him as borderline autistic, clinically depressed, and often unable to function normally? Benjamin is unnaturally attached to a stuffed letter ``H,'' which he calls Elliot and with which his parents abscond after visiting him halfway through the summer. The second section consists of letters from Benjamin to Elliot and vice versa (obviously written by Benjamin). The boy's early letters make it clear that he believes there is an entire society of Elliots living in a place known as Elliottown, but additional correspondence merely repeats that idea without sufficiently expanding on it. Shepard does a good job of re-creating Benjamin's secret language (for example, these letters have a complicated dating system), but she too often hits the reader over the head with Benjamin's obsessions, such as Star Trek and pizza bagels. In fact, much of the material here is obvious, and the differences in the voices of various characters feel forced (Benjamin's counselor writes to a friend in laughable slang, addressing him as ``you studly tan animal''). A third and final section presents correspondence relating to Benjamin's stay in a mental hospital. A lot of fancy fonts and letterheads indicate the different writers (Benjamin's young sister uses a blocky mix of capital and lower-case), but the image of Benjamin himself remains vague. The impulse to utilize an innovative form is admirable, but the results are unfortunately shoddy.
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