Don Noble
12:04 pm
Mon April 16, 2007

Longleaf

The protagonist of Longleaf is fourteen-year-old Jason Caldwell, who is the son of academics?an astronomer father and a mother who is finishing up a doctorate in biology, herpetology to be precise. As part of his mother's research into frogs, Jason and his family are camping in Alabama's Conecuh National Forest, near Andalusia.

For no particular literary/sociological reason that I know of, the last eight months here in Alabama have produced three young-adult novels of considerable achievement and interest.

Alabama Moon, by Watt Key, features a ten-year-old who is forced into a state boy's home after his survivalist father dies, leaving him an orphan. The boy, Moon Blake, an accomplished outdoorsman, escapes and hides out with some new friends in the Talladega National Forest near Moundville.

Later in the fall, Brent Davis produced his second novel, Raising Kane, starring Eddie Kane, "the twelve-year-old terror of the five-string banjo." To help out with the family finances, Eddie tours Alabama with his uncles' bluegrass band during the early days of the civil right movement.

Now, in a January release, we have Longleaf by Roger Reid.

The protagonist of Longleaf is fourteen-year-old Jason Caldwell, who is neither orphaned nor poor. Jason is the son of academics?an astronomer father and a mother who is finishing up a doctorate in biology, herpetology to be precise. As part of his mother's research into frogs, Jason and his family are camping in Alabama's Conecuh National Forest, near Andalusia.

The plot of this novel is fairly simple. Jason accidentally witnesses a crime committed by the redneck Carl Morris and "his two idiot brothers." These three evil droolers are fairly standard characters from central casting?violent, ignorant backwoodsmen with really bad breath. Jason describes Carl as "a wiry guy about five feet nine inches tall with a grungy goatee . . . greasy black hair" and "leather" skin.

The Morris brothers mean to make Jason disappear into the forest and would manage it if not for Jason's new friend Leah Pickens. One year older than Jason and a little taller, Leah is a tomboy, yes, but Jason is soon smitten: "that long, thick, shaggy black hair seemed to swirl in slow motion. As her dark voodoo eyes fixed on mine, the hair continued in a wave across her face. It looked like a shampoo commercial."

Jason and Leah, who is by the way the daughter of Deputy Sheriff Mr. Shirley Pickens, play Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher in the Conecuh Forest, with the Morris brothers as three Injun Joes, except that Leah, not Jason, is the more knowledgeable and capable. Though caught by the Morris brothers, they manage to escape, showing both courage and woodcraft.

I cannot be sure, but I think middle-school readers will like this novel, the characters and the plot. There is another dimension to this book, however, which is also worth mentioning and that is Longleaf as nature text. Roger Reid, the author, is an environmentalist and a writer, director, and producer for the series Discovering Alabama with Dr. Doug Phillips. Longleaf is, in a nicely sugar-coated way, instructional. The reader learns of the virtues of the Alabama longleaf pine and how there are only three million acres of this magnificent tree surviving from the ninety million that were here at the time of Columbus.

I was pleased to learn about the gopher tortoise, who digs tunnels ten feet deep and then as much as thirty feet long. Apparently, these tunnels become underground condos for a dozen other creatures, including frogs, bobcats, and diamondback rattlers. Don't step in the hole. Don't put your hand down the hole, either.

Longleaf is pleasantly laced throughout with bits of environmental information on birds, amphibians, and the trees themselves. The story is told in the voice of the fourteen-year-old Jason and is believable and compelling, with clear prose and a plot that moves right along.

Surely there is a market for a book such as this in Alabama's middle schools. Surely not every boy, or girl for that matter, between the ages of ten and sixteen is entranced by Harry Potter, sorcerer's stones, and goblets of fire.

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