Realistic local color and characters make up for a somewhat poor mystery plot.


That Awful Smell

From the Young Ralph McMysteries series , Vol. 1

In Depression-era Kansas, young Ralph McConnell and his friends find a body down by the river in the latest in the Young Ralph McMystery series.

Veteran author Neighbor (Princess Waconda, 2016, etc.) takes readers back to a story of childhood in north-central Kansas in the 1930s. (The dedicatee—and the protagonist’s namesake—is the author’s uncle, who died in a car crash in 1937 at the age of 10.) The discovery of the titular awful smell sets the plot in motion. Intrepid Ralph and his best buddies, Rusty and Teag, eventually steel themselves and fight through horseflies and stench to discover a body. It’s terribly decomposed, and no one has a clue whose it could be. Other characters include Ralph’s “maw,” Esther; his stepfather, Jeb; and various townspeople, relatives, disreputable “gandy dancers” from the railroad, and carnies, as the annual Celebration carnival is in town. Much of the story involves the kids’ pastimes and camaraderie and, especially, the backdrop of the Celebration. After word gets out about the body, practically the whole town comes out to gawk, but there are very few clues, as nobody has been reported missing. The lawmen and forensic people move in, the body is taken to a lab in Topeka, and the boys get caught up in the Celebration. Later, though, Ralph barely escapes from the bad guy. Overall, the mystery itself is rather weak. However, Neighbor still tells a good story, and his picture of life in that time and place is lovingly detailed. The language the author uses is true-to-life except for a couple of fancy words put in Ralph’s mouth, such as “castigate” and “explicated.” These characters are good people: Ralph’s anxious maw, his taciturn stepfather (the brother of Ralph’s late father), and others don’t have much money, but they do have love and religion and spunk, and that carries the day. All of this rings true.

Realistic local color and characters make up for a somewhat poor mystery plot.

Pub Date: March 25, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-5227-1057-8

Page Count: 134

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2016

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In the My Name Is America series, Durbin (Wintering, 1999, etc.) offers the story of Sean Sullivan, whose first day in Omaha, Nebraska, brings him face to face with a victim of an Indian attack; the man survived, but carries his bloody scalp in a bucket. It’s August 1897, and Sean has just arrived from Chicago, planning to work with his father on the Intercontinental Railroad. Pa, who carries terrible memories of his stint in the Civil War and of the death three years ago of Sean’s mother, is already a foreman for the railroad, but Sean must start at the bottom, as a water carrier, toting barrels of it to the thirsty men who are doing the back-breaking work on the line. At night, everyone is usually too tired to do anything but sleep, but Sundays are free, and Sean discovers the rough and rowdy world of the towns that seem to sprout up from nowhere along the railroad’s path over the prairie. Through Sean’s eyes, the history of this era and the magnitude of his and his fellow workers’ achievements come alive; Durbin has no trouble making Sean’s world palpable, and readers will slog along with Sean every step of the way on his long and arduous journey to building a railroad and becoming a man. (b&w maps, photos, reproductions) (Fiction. 8-14)

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-439-04994-6

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Scholastic

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1999

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Far more engaging for its history than its story, this novel in the form of a diary never catches fire. The diary is 13-year-old Simone’s, writing from April to July 1838 in New Orleans. Simone and her extended family are “gens de couleur libre”—free people of color—of African and European parentage. Simone is perfecting her English, since French is her usual language; readers glimpse her pampered but insecure existence through her adolescent habits and desires. She loves her beautiful cousin Claire-Marie, as creamy-skinned as her father, a Creole aristocrat who also has a legal wife and children. Simone is fascinated by the slave Azura’s voudou practice, by her father’s stone carving, and most especially by her Tante Madelon, who sweeps in from Paris to visit Simone’s dying grandfather. It may be a weakness of the diary format that too many plot strands are told rather than shown: sibling rivalry among Simone’s mother and aunts; Tante Madelon betraying one niece while assisting another; Claire-Marie’s father abandoning her family with no support; Grandfather’s death bound with some dark family history; Simone’s tentative grasp of the horrors of slavery and her decision to aid Azura’s daughters. The novel is flawed by wispy characterizations and Simone’s whiny voice, but the preface and afterword tell of a fascinating and little-known piece of American history that may draw readers in. (Fiction. 10-14)

Pub Date: Aug. 25, 1999

ISBN: 0-688-16202-9

Page Count: 155

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1999

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