Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp
by Kathi Appelt
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2013
336 pages

This is a book that kind of surprised me. I wasn't sure how I was going to feel about it, but in the end I enjoyed it very much. The thing was, when I started, I was kind of - meh. The dynamic in this book is often found in children's books with an environmental theme: little guy, loves the swamp, all good; big bad guy, inexplicably hates all nature, and is totally, almost comically, irredeemable. Little guy through dint of hard work and some luck shows up the big guy, who vanishes from the picture, never to return. Paradise is saved.

I find this plot and character dynamic really problematic for a couple of reasons, but let's flesh out The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp a bit first. The success of this book is in the details. And do not get me wrong: this book is successful. It's funny, tender, clever, creative, and hugely enjoyable. I'll get my vent off my chest first, but then I'll get to the good bits.

In this case, the "little guy" is actually played by three characters in two separate but connected storylines: Bingo and J'miah are the titular true blue Swamp Scouts, raccoons who have taken an oath to protect the swamp and serve the Sugar Man, the giant creature who mostly sleeps but occasionally wakes to eat some delicious sugar cane or deal out some mayhem to enemies of the swamp. Chap Brayburn is the 12-year-old grandson of a man by the name of Audie, proprietor of Paradise Pies Cafe, birdwatcher and swamp dweller. Audie is recently deceased. So now, enter Sonny Boy Beaucoup, our first big bad guy, owner of the swamp who is about to repossess Paradise Pies Cafe and turn the whole mess into an alligator wrestling stadium and theme park with his business partner and World Champion Alligator Wrestler, diminutive, unsavoury, and fierce Jaeger Stitch. Our second strand of big bad guys, to counter Bingo and J'miah, are the Farrow Gang, a family of big, bad, itinerant wild hogs bent on eating the swamp's delicious muscovado sugar cane. The swamp is in terrible, terrible danger from foes human and not.

Okay, so my problem with setups like this is that there are never any grey areas, and maybe for children's literature that's okay, sometimes. Kids do have a more defined idea of right and wrong in situations like this, and cut-and-dried "swamp/other undervalued natural area = good, development of said area = bad" with heroes and villains really does appeal. Heck, it appeals to adults; I felt as satisfied as anyone when Sonny Boy gets his. And I am a naturalist, I would even go so far as to call myself an environmentalist: I am all for anything that celebrates nature and the environment and touts its value. I can enjoy a wish-fulfillment fantasy where the developer who hates nature gets his ass kicked in the end.

The problem with this kind of black and white situation is that it exists essentially nowhere in reality and while it's fun to play that wish-fulfillment game, it's also destructive. Furthermore, I find it hard to believe that there are quite so many supervillainous, obsessive nature haters out there as environmentally-themed fiction would have us believe. People who don't see the value of a meadow, yes; people who want to destroy the meadow because it's a personal affront to them that it exists? Who rub their hands together, revelling in their gleeful evil plans? I am not so sure. Perhaps I am wrong.

The thing is, this black and white rhetoric isn't limited to fiction; it's been a staple of some segments of environmental movements, and that kind of rhetoric doesn't generally win friends or supporters. I did genuinely believe as a kid that people who built parking lots and malls were evil and actively hated the planet, but as an adult I can see that's not the case; they simply don't see it, I think, and sometimes they do see it but they also see jobs, economy, and yes, personal cash. (As an aside sure to win me friends, I do still occasionally wonder if the tar sands operators and their political champions do actively hate nature; I am not quite sure how they can justify what they do without some sort of pathological issue.) I can see where jobs and economy and protecting nature intersect, I can see where there are no simple solutions and where pretending there are does everyone, including the environmental movements, a disservice.

All right, so there, in a too-big nutshell, is my problem with this book, which is mostly a problem with this type of book. On the surface this is a simple, moral-heavy story with incredibly simplistic solutions. I want a little more nuance in the discussion, because I think kids can handle the nuance. I think adults need the nuance. Let's get to the parts that I liked, the parts that had me reading quickly and past my bedtime and occasionally giggling out loud.

The narrator's voice. And I know I'm not going to be joined in this by everyone who reads this book, but I really, really enjoyed the narrator's voice. Perhaps it puts me in mind a bit of a very Southern US E. Nesbit, with its empathetic warmth, the comic asides, and chattiness, and I like that sort of thing. The narration should have seemed hokey and overdone, but it didn't. To me, it added to the charm and the atmosphere of the book. And the narrator keeps the pace moving at a good clip; I can't believe how quickly I read once I got going. I didn't want to put the thing down.

Many of the sections are told from the point of view of the raccoons, and these were by far my favourites, though I liked Chap a lot. The raccoon storyline was what brought originality to the book, made it something beyond the little-guy-vs-big-bad environmental fable. It's a bit coming-of-age, a bit of myth-making, with the denizens of the swamp heavily anthropomorphized but still animals. I developed an incredible fondness for Bingo and J'miah and that could be because I do have a bit of a fondness for raccoons in general (while still recognizing they can be terribly destructive, even slightly malicious little jerks) but it's also because Appelt makes them relatable, charming, full of mischief and also full of good intentions.

I loved how human ephemera plays a roll in the ecology of the swamp. Bingo and J'miah live in an old Chrysler De Soto, and J'miah discovers some treasures in it - to tell what they are is to spoil it, and part of the joy of the narration is the way it hops around, lighting on things and connecting them, bit by bit.

And - slight spoiler - I loved that Appelt felt that the existence in the swamp of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, that elusive but perhaps still-extant dweller of the deepest parts of the swamps of the southern States, could remain a question mark. That kind of ambiguity and subtlety is missing from the overall plot and I would have liked more, but I am happy with what I got.

Recommended and I'm really looking forward to hearing what the parent-child book club has to say about this one. If the cut-and-dried environmentally-themed narrative with bad guys and good guys doesn't appeal to you, this will probably irritate you on some levels, and if you're not a fan of folksy narrators this book will drive you up the wall and likely over it. People who have problems with anthropomorphized animals will also want to steer clear. But if you're curious about an original story, steeped in atmosphere, told with warm humour and charm, this is a good choice. If you like an environmental message and like it when people get their nature facts right, this is also fun. If you like rattlesnakes, if you wish the bad guys would just be unsympathetically bad and lose a little more often, if you want to believe that the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker is still there somewhere in the deepest, darkest part of the swamp, pick this one up. Many thanks to Cecelia for bringing it to my attention in the first place!


Ana S. said...

"The thing is, this black and white rhetoric isn't limited to fiction; it's been a staple of some segments of environmental movements, and that kind of rhetoric doesn't generally win friends or supporters." So true - and I say this as someone who tries to be as environmentally conscious too.

I've been meaning to read The Underneath for years so I think I'll start there, but this sounds interesting too - even if a little more complexity would have made for a more interesting story.

Unknown said...

Indeed it would have, but it was good times anyway, and I think it's good for kids to get thinking and talking about the issues. We'll see if they pick up on the lack of complexity.

I always feel torn - I think I would have loved this book as a kid, and would have been... upset, if an adult had told me to dig deeper because I think this book would have come up short and I would have known it.