Secret of the Satilfa by Ted M. Dunagan
One reads recently in the publishing journals that young adult fiction is the fastest growing of the niche markets. "Harry Potter" and various combinations of vampire books may be mostly responsible for this but, without resorting to wizards or werewolves, NewSouth Books in its Junebug series is positioning itself nicely.
Audio ?2010 Alabama Public Radio
One reads recently in the publishing journals that young adult fiction is the fastest growing of the niche markets. "Harry Potter" and various combinations of vampire books may be mostly responsible for this but, without resorting to wizards or werewolves, NewSouth Books in its Junebug series is positioning itself nicely. NewSouth has nurtured Virginia Pounds Brown, Billy Moore, Roger Reid with his two well-received, science-based novels, Longleaf and Space, and now Ted M. Dunagan and Secret of the Satilfa, his sequel to A Yellow Watermelon.
In Dunagan's first, we met 12-year-old Ted Dillon of south Clark County and his buddy, exactly the same age, the African- American boy Poudlum Robinson.
The two have adventures in Watermelon, in the course of which it is revealed to the community that the preacher is a secret drunk, the local sawmill owner is a loan shark and a bootlegger, and the sheriff needs close watching.
In Satilfa, set, like Watermelon, in 1948, only now in late November, the story begins innocently enough. The boys take an overnight camping expedition, by the Satilfa Creek. They fish, set trot lines, fry the catfish they catch, and sleep under the stars. Fine so far, with only the danger of cottonmouth moccasins to worry them. Early in the morning, however, they are awakened by two bank robbers, who call themselves, amusingly enough, Jesse and Frank.
The gunmen robbed the bank, got away, have hidden the loot, and now capture the boys. The real, out of the ordinary adventures begin.
Boys' adventure novels take a fairly predictable shape. There are captures and escapes, chases, hiding from the bad guys, and attempts to get help from grown-ups. Added to all this is the real possibility that the boys have figured out where the loot is stashed and may recover it and get the reward money, 500 dollars, which in 1948 is a real pile.
If this were a Hardy Boys novel, in which the boys are a pair of white kids, the narrative would be fairly straightforward. In Secret of the Saltilfa, set in Alabama, however, the issue of race must come into play.
Ted and Poudlum are buddies who are innocent as yet of the real destructive emotions of prejudice and so have fairly na?ve conversations about why they have to attend different churches and schools. They sometimes ask about the other's experiences. In Ted's school, we are told, the students enjoy the school lunch, what was called, in my childhood, the Federal Lunch. Ted inquires about Poudlum's school lunches: "Yeah, we got 'em just like you says ya'll do, but most folks ain't got fifteen cents to pay for 'em." At Poudlum's school most of the kids bring biscuits from home, maybe with a piece of side meat in them.
Dunagan includes a number of what might be called teachable moments. When the boys wonder why the bank robbers, clearly guilty, are being treated with such consideration, Uncle Curvin explains the criminal justice system and trials quite accurately and briefly: "You see, boys, the worst thing in the world is for an innocent person to be punished for a deed they didn't do, and in our country every possible effort is taken to see that don't happen." Every possible effort in this novel includes a real prima donna defense lawyer, right from central casting, "dressed like a preacher" complete with "flowing white hair."
Satilfa presents a number of scenes from bygone days, which may intrigue a young reader today. There is scene of sugar-cane crushing and syrup making, a hog killing day, a description of how to play mumblety-peg with pocket knives, and the construction of a homemade spinning jenny, atop a giant stump.
Dunagan's novel seems situated squarely in its genre. This is a nicely paced story, with excitement, nostalgia and a tolerable number of lessons worth learning.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio on July 5, 2010. Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m.