Reviewed by Geri, Ridgefield Library
Smith tells four seemingly disparate stories in this book, but close reading reveals the connections between them. Ariel’s story is of surviving the bombing of his home and his journey to America as a war refugee. There is the tale of the nineteenth century Arctic expedition ship The Alex Crow, and of what her crew found in the ice. There are the travails of Leonard Fountain, an insane man driving across the American South on a mission of destruction. And there is the story of Ariel, now in America, his new brother Max, and their fellow campers at Camp Merrie Seymour for Boys; and how they are all enduring the oddest camp experience ever.
The four different stories, each with multiple characters, taking place in diverse locations and at different times, with the narrative jumping between them, will keep readers on their toes. It is almost disorientating at times, keeping up with all the wonderful, fascinating characters and their trials and tribulations. The summer camp is populated with various teen boys, twenty-something counselors (who don’t want to be there any more than the kids) and slightly askew adults. The sections on the ship The Alex Crow are written as the formal journal of an explorer. And the people Ariel meets on his way out of his homeland are as richly described as all the people who live in Leonard Fountain’s head. These characters are frightened, bold, cocky, confident, confused, charming, formal, warm, and dangerous; in other words, for all of the weirdness in this tale, the characters are real. Human. With enormous flaws and enormous hearts (man that was trite, but you know what I mean) and real personalities that make you want to keep reading. Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle was a Printz honor book this year, so maybe the odds are against a repeat? But Smith (alongside authors such as A.S. King and John Corey Whaley) wants to “Keep YA Weird” a sentiment that seems to resound with readers. The Alex Crow is weird. And thought provoking. And Printz worthy.
(Full disclosure, I both read and listened to The Alex Crow and I highly recommend the audiobook. Narrator Macleod Andrews is aces. His interpretation of Smith’s story is a pleasure to immerse oneself in. He immediately grounds the listener in the proper place in the book. He creates unique voices for each section, narrating with a formal British accent for the arctic expedition, multiple voices that Leonard Fountain hears in his head, and subtly changing Ariel’s accent when he’s in his own country or has been in America for a little while. It is reminiscent of a radio drama, but then again it isn’t – there are no sound effects or multiple narrators – but somehow the four stories are each so unique that it is as if you are hearing four different yet related audiobooks. Andrews does amazing verbal gymnastics here, and he has such a rich text to work from.)