I thought her tale of hound dog and kittens in the Big Thicket of East Texas, The Underneath, was excellent storytelling, and it should have won the Newbery in 2009 instead of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which I didn’t like at all. As for last year’s The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp—it should have won something because it’s just as delicious (cane sugar fried pies) and delightful (raccoon scouts who live inside an old rusted De Soto) as The Underneath was.
Again, as in The Underneath, Ms. Appelt’s style takes some getting used to. The chapters, or scenes, are very short, two to four pages each, and the focus and point of view are constantly switching form one set of characters and one plot strand to another. But at the end everything converges in the East Texas swampland that made the setting of The Underneath so memorable.
If the setting is the same, True Blue Scouts has all new characters: Bingo and J’miah, Official Sugar Man Swamp Scouts; twelve year old Chapparal Brayburn who has just become the man of the house after the death of his beloved grandfather; Jaeger Stitch, World Champion Gator Wrestler of the Northern Hemisphere; Sonny Boy Beaucoup, current owner of the Sugar Man Swamp, Buzzie and Clydine, leaders of the Farrow Gang of feral hogs; and of course, the Sugar Man himself, “taller than his cousin Sasquatch, taller than Barmanou, way taller than the Yeti. His arms were like the cedar trees that were taking root all around, tough and sinuous. His hands were as wide and big as palmetto ferns. His hair looked just like the Spanish moss that hung on the north side of the cypress trees, and the rest of his body was covered in rough black fur . . . You could say that he was made up of bits and pieces of every living creature in the swamp, every duck, fx lizard, and catfish, every pitcher plant, muskrat, and termite.”
And the plot is complicated by a white “Lord God bird” that may or may not be mythical, a 1949 De Soto lost in the swamp, the delicious-ness of Brayburn fried pies, sugar cane guarded by a whole nest of canebrake rattlers, and the rapacious greed of Jaeger Stitch and Sonny Boy Beaucoup. If you liked The Underneath, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp is a must read. If you disliked the animal abuse that was part of the story in The Underneath, then be assured that no animals (except maybe alligators and even the alligators survive) are harmed in the reading of this book. Some readers might be offended by the way that Appelt uses “Lord God” as a sort of exclamation in a couple of places as well as being the name of the bird, but I thought it was a sort of prayer or invocation of the blessing of God himself. Plus, if you were to read this book aloud, as it begs to be shared, you could leave those references out.
The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp was a National Book Award finalist, but why Kathy Appelt keeps being honored and runner-upped instead of taking the prize, I don’t know. Maybe it’s that polarizing thing I mentioned. At any rate, award or no, you will enjoy True Blue Scouts. No question about it. Unless you’re at the opposite pole.