Books
1:42 pm
Mon January 12, 2009

In the Company of Owls, by Peter Huggins. Illustrated by Paula G. Koz

This novel may simply be mislabeled and should be marketed as a "chapter book," that newish genre in between children's books?in which the story is told primarily through pictures?and young adult. The plot is thin and the characters not much developed, but if the readers are 7-10, it should be appropriate.

In the Company of Owls, by Peter Huggins. Illustrated by Paula G. Koz

There is, numerically, an increasing market for young adult fiction in America. According to the Young Adult Library Services Association, between 1990 and 2000 "the number of persons between 12 and 19 soared to 32 million, a growth rate of 17 percent that significantly outpaced the growth of the rest of the population." The definition of "young adult" has "expanded to include those as young as 10 and, since the late 1990s , as old as 25." They further report that "65 percent of graduating high school seniors . . . are reading below grade level," so young adult books are appropriate for them in terms of reading skill, if not chronological age. Thus, through regular population growth and redefinition the market for this fiction has increased, they report, by 23-25 percent.

Also, we seem, as a culture, more anxious than ever about whether young people, especially boys, are reading enough and reading the right stuff. But, whatever the reason, there are more and more books for young readers being written and published in Alabama. Just in the last couple of years I have reviewed books by Brent Davis, Ted Dunagan, and Watt Key, and two by Roger Reid. These books, set in the 1940s and '50s in the contemporary South, all follow somewhat the same pattern. They are realistic fiction and all have young male protagonists who get into some scrapes, escape without dreadful consequences, and learn a few useful lessons along the way. In the Company of Owls is no exception.

Peter Huggins has taught in the English department at Auburn for many years, and is the author of four books of poetry and a children's book, Trosclair and the Alligator. Huggins sets his story in rural Tennessee, in hill country, it what seems to be the fifties. Eleven-year-old Aaron Cash lives on a dairy farm with his father, Nate, mother, Anne, and younger sister, Shelley. They have 237 cows, we are told, and life is good. It is clear from chapter one that this novel will have scenes of teachable ethics. Aaron is using his sister's doll, Piglet, for a target for his BB gun. Dad gently chastises Aaron and the lesson is learned. The relationship between father and son is warm and solid.

On the neighboring Blackburn place, however, the situation is very different. Old Jason Blackburn lives alone, in a little trailer in the yard, while his son lives in squalor in the house, alone, since his wife has left him and his mother died of a stroke when he was a boy. Morgan Blackburn is the story's villain and he is a mean one, a bootlegger, violent, crude, and with a stammer that probably originated in the trauma of watching his mother die on the kitchen floor.

The action of this story is generated when the Cashes learn that Blackburn has a still. The unbalanced unhappy Blackburn becomes a destructive monster and a would-be killer. He identifies with the owl, which he sees as an amoral creature who swoops without mercy and snatches up his prey.

Along the way, of course, there are little narrative excursions. Aaron is the crack pitcher for the local youth league baseball team. In a scene at school, Aaron's buddy Jimmy gives a report in class on Allied air cover over the Normandy beaches. Aaron also earns from the wiser Jimmy that the crows Aaron saw flying erratically were drunk, having fed on Morgan Blackburn's sour mash.

As stories like this one must, matters come to a head. Blackburn, enraged and frustrated, finally tries to kill Nate Cash, and Aaron saves his dad's life by hitting Blackburn in the head with his BB gun, knocking him unconscious. (Aaron must be one really powerful eleven-year-old.) I give away this ending freely, since adults will not buy this book to read themselves, but to give to boys to read. Which boys is the problem. Most young adult fiction is aimed at teens, 12-18, whereas with an eleven-year-old hero, this book seems pitched a little younger. The eighteen woodcuts by Paula G. Koz also contribute to the feel of a children's book. These pleasing black and white illustrations are of a copperhead snake, a mouse, an owl, rural scenes, and several of the characters.

This novel may simply be mislabeled and should be marketed as a "chapter book," that newish genre in between children's books?in which the story is told primarily through pictures?and young adult. The plot is thin and the characters not much developed, but if the readers are 7-10, it should be appropriate.

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