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Another tale from the 1950s South by the author of the notable On the Ropes (1981)--who has a somewhat less rich or distinctive story this time, but again tells it with wry, Twain-ish vigor. In June 1956 nine US Marines, part of a special recruiting/parade unit. disappear from their posting in Houston. Where and why have they gone? The newspapers can only speculate. But about three weeks later two 13-year-olds in rural Louisiana--farm-kid Hogan McGhee and his wild-ish city cousin Jake Darby--find a cache of backpacks and ""USMC"" supplies in a barn near the McGhee farm, as well as a map suggesting that those missing Marines are walking (!) east; they figure out that the barn must be a pre-planned stopover spot for the secret Marine trek. And, after the Marines do make a quick, unseen stop at the barn, the boys determine to trail them, to learn the secret destination (and motivation) of this bizarre AWOL expedition. Off, then, they hike--Jake impetuous, Hogan dubious. (They tell Hogan's dad they're going to camp in a nearby national forest.) They track down the now-hungry Marines, tempt them out of hiding with food and beer, offer themselves as ""partisan"" civilian supporters. (""To Jake's mind it was a lot better to be known to the world as somebody who helped the marines get where they were going than the punk who turned them in."") But the Marines' leader, who doesn't want the boys involved in his illegal mission (a pro-Marine, anti-bureaucracy publicity stunt), manages to shake them off with misdirections. So, though Hogan becomes increasingly fretful, the boys must once again use deduction and determination to trail the Marines. . . fight into a perilous walk across the beams of the vast Mississippi River bridge at Vicksburg. There's a shortage of credibility in both halves of the narrative here: the Marines' reason for the trek, the boys' reasons for following. The character of the Marine leader--who helps the boys to safety in that bridge derring-do--is underfed. But the relationship between the country/city cousins is full of sharp, ironic charm--and Salassi, a natural storyteller, textures his rather thin anecdote with such genial diversions as a small-town Louisiana pie-eating contest. (Jakey's elegant, steady technique gets him through four monster-pies easily.)

Pub Date: March 12th, 1984
Publisher: Greenwillow