Back in the olden days of the early 1980s, “The Wizard of Oz” was event TV. My sisters and I would flop belly-down in front of the TV, chins propped on our hands and watch with rapt attention as Dorothy wound her way through the wonderful land of Oz.
Every year, without fail, I would bawl my head off at the end when Dorothy had to say goodbye to the Scarecrow. Even when I got older and understood that the Scarecrow was the guy back in Kansas, I still cried. I can’t name the emotion that scene stirred up in me. Sadness at Dorothy having to leave her friend? Happiness that she was able to go home? Regret that she couldn’t have it both ways? I’m not sure. What I do know is that I felt the exact same way finishing Kelly Barnhill’s The Mostly True Story of Jack as I did upon watching the end of “The Wizard of Oz,” tears and all.
There’s something sort of Ozesque about Jack and his banishment to Iowa upon the separation of his parents. While Jack is upset about having to live with his old Aunt Mabel and Uncle Clive, he takes it in stride. Jack’s used to being forgotten, invisible, and lonely (and when he talks about it, it’s really heartbreaking). Plus, there’s something a little mystical and magical about Hazelwood, IA. Though Jack doesn’t believe in fairy tales or magic, he’s still a little intrigued by what’s going on.
And there’s a lot going on. We find out pretty early on that something is up with the magic in Hazelwood. Something’s not right and it has to do with Jack and the sinister Mr. Avery, the richest man in town, whose family wealth has been ill-gotten for generations. To say too much more might give away one of the many suspenseful twists and turns that happen in this wonderfully suspenseful mystery.
It really is the kind of book you don’t want to put down, and I’m not just saying that because Kelly’s in my writing group.
The book is filled with great characters including Jacks’s trio of friends (the first he ever makes): Wendy who is ‘prickly,” her damaged twin brother Frankie, who disappeared for years when he was eight and returned under mysterious circumstances; and their friend Anders who become Jack’s very first friends. Plus, there’s the feline duo of Gog and Magog, who are totally awesome.
I have to take a moment to mention how much I loved Wendy. She’s a take charge, take no shit girl who upon finding herself in a situation that would require her to be rescued, immediately sets to rescuing herself. She rules, hard, and I kind of want to start a campaign for a sequel called “The Mostly True Story of Wendy.”
But this is so much more than a book about mystery and suspense. It’s packed full of goodness about the magic and power of nature, about choosing what’s right over what’s easy, about honoring the people you love in your memory, and the importance of family.
It’s a fabulous book that will keep you intrigued until the very end when suddenly, if you’re at all like me, you’ll find yourself dissolving into tears when you least expect it. The Mostly True Story of Jack is tender and sweet and fun and sad all at the same time, which is what makes it so great.