Tuesday, January 25, 2011

We Might Call It A Sophisticated Mystery

I am not fond of traditional problem books, which I see as validating themselves because they are about something really, really important. A problem. I particularly dislike those books that pile on problem after problem to make sure we all get the point about how serious they are. Jellico Road by Melina Marchetta involves a lot of problems. To make matters worse, when a librarian friend saw me leaving with the book, she told me she'd cried over the ending. That is not my idea of a recommendation.

I didn't cry over the ending of this marvelous book, but I came damn close.

The many problems the many charcters in Jellicoe Road suffer through are not there to instruct us on how people should deal with their trials. Instead, they are there to support character and plot. They explain why characters behave the way they do, and each ordeal is literally part of the plot in this story of a tough, witty, capable seventeen-year-old girl who appears to be alone in the world but most definitely is not. Taylor appears to be caught in an age-old battle among three groups of teenagers--the private school students like herself, the Townies, and the Cadets who are just in the neighborhood for a few weeks. Really, she is in paradise, a pardise that is slowly revealed to her along with the story of another group of students, Townies, and Cadets who had lived in that very spot nearly eighteen years earlier.

This is a demanding book. The story of the earlier kids is told by means of a manuscript that Taylor has been reading out of order. It takes time to work out those kids' relationship to each other. We have to also work out what they have to do with Taylor, something that I was sometimes able to figure out before she did--but in the most satisfying way.

There are also multiple mysteries here. In addition to Taylor's personal mysteries and the mystery surrounding the earlier teenagers, there is a serial killer at work here, maybe some arsonists, and a tunnel keeps coming up. Everything is resolved, nothing is forgotten.

How good is this book? It's good enough that its weaknesses don't stop the narrative drive. Why don't the adults in the book tell Taylor more about her life? Everybody seems to know and to be keeping things from her. Isn't the manuscript a little contrived? Isn't the crisis at the dorm at the end of the book a little over the top? Hey, let it all go, and enjoy the ride.

Jellico Road might be a great crossover book between traditional mysteries and mainstream literature. The mystery will engage mystery-loving teen readers, and the quality of the writing will make them want more of the same.

Plot Project: Several times in the book, Taylor talks about what she wants. More. More from everybody. Is this a case where the author gave her character something to want and then came up with a plot by throwing in stumbling blocks to getting it? I don't think so. Come on. More? Plus there are too many threads here for something so simplistic as roadblocks to happiness to have kept things running. My guess is that this is a book that started with a situation. You've got this group of kids involved in this elaborate war that in reality is a game that enables them all to interact together, and they start learning about another group of kids who were doing the same kinds of things twenty years before. From there the plot is all about revelation. One revelation leads to another revelation and then another.

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