This YA novel sees a wrestler meet the challenges of bullying and his crush’s strange hobby.
Seventh-grader Ripley Robinson has just moved to Hidden Mountain with his family. At school one day, his only friend, Jasper, warns: “You never want to be the last one in the bathroom.” But Ripley lingers and bully Dirk Heartley stuffs his head in the toilet and flushes. A talented wrestler, Ripley uses the back of his head to break Dirk’s nose. Ripley runs, hiding in a janitor’s closet. A girl named Geddy spies him and investigates. Ripley is instantly smitten by her freckles and quirky style. He learns from her about the town’s worm-charming competition, which consists of coaxing the creatures to the surface of a field. The team that charms the most worms wins clues to a secret treasure of $300,000. Geddy hopes to triumph so that she and her mother won’t have to move to Oregon and live with Grandma. Ripley wants to help, but he must also concentrate on wrestling, dodge Dirk, and grapple with being popular after busting the bully’s nose. Will Chet, the eerie janitor with a hook for a hand, add to Ripley’s problems or solve a few? Stricklen’s (The Heart of the Swarm, 2016) latest novel deftly balances romance, sportsmanship, and lessons in racism. When a girl named Dixie gives Ripley a jean jacket, it’s adorned with the Confederate flag (after her name) and he thinks nothing of it. Later, Ripley hangs out with Hawk, his African American wrestling teammate. In Hawk’s predominantly black neighborhood, Ripley feels white for the first time and is reminded that the Confederate flag represents slavery. The boys also have an escapade involving destroyed property that leads to Ripley learning that honesty is the best policy. The author gives sports fans plenty to love in the wrestling scenes, and music nerds will adore Geddy, who’s named after the band Rush’s singer. Stricklen skillfully weaves together numerous plot threads, though some readers may find the story arc focusing on an elderly black woman named Betsy Turner overly sweet.
Unlikely elements blend wonderfully in this eclectic adventure.