humor, poignancy, and lumberjacks

my near death adventures 99% true cover imageMy Near-Death Adventures (99% True) by Alison DeCamp
pubished in 2015 by Crown Books for Young Readers

Here is a book that made me laugh out loud one minute, then swung about and deftly delivered heartache the next. 

It’s a book coated in an outer shell of boisterous, eye-rolling humor, yet beneath that tough exterior lie profound yearnings and insecurities.

And it takes place in the 1890s, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Not many Yoopers in kids lit, eh? The book’s cast features a cast-iron-tough granny, a logging camp full of grimy guys, a tough-as-nails girl cousin, a hard-working single mom, and our hero — from andersonvalleymuseum dot orgStanley Slater.

Stan has recently arrived at Uncle Henry’s logging camp where his Mama will be helping out in the kitchen and his Granny (whose Evil Rating fluctuates throughout the book, from a high of 99.9%) will be keeping Stan from inadvertently killing himself.

Stan’s deadbeat dad has never been a part of his life, but Stan has just discovered that it’s not due to his dad’s death. He’s alive out there.  Somewhere. Being the man of the house at age 11 is a tough job, but Stan is one determined young thing, bent on being just the sort of manly man to take care of the flimsy women folk who depend on him.

Stan is a lovable klutz, an anti-hero who reminds me a bit of Walter Mitty, ever drifting off into an inner world in which his muscles bulge and his enemies quail before him, while back in the real world he bashes his head open on an ax handle and mutters aloud the secrets he means to keep to himself.

from connorcoyne cot comThe humor and the pathos of this story stem from the same source — Stan’s burning desire to prove himself a man to his unseen father. Stan is certain he’s coming back, and when he does, he longs to be the spitting, can-crushing, ax-wielding, throw-your-weight-around, heap of masculinity he’s sure his father is. This lands Stanley in many hilarious hotspots. He is so charmingly ridiculous.

Yet that deep longing for a father, the gripping onto a mirage, the fierce sense of loss and denial — that isn’t funny. It’s heartbreaking. And Alison DeCamp nails it, never overwhelming the story with despair, but painting big streaks of sobering reality in it which anchor the whole novel to the earth.

Stan is a slow learner, but there are some golden characters and moments in his life that feed him the truth: that being a real man is not about brute strength and bad smells; it’s about faithfulness, responsibility, kindness, and oh yeah,  treating women as intelligent, strong, equals.

It was hard for me to figure out who would best like this book. I

Just one of many items from Stan's scrapbook.

Just one of many items from Stan’s scrapbook.

think kids ages 10 and up will enjoy it and plug into the humor of the story easily. To grasp the depth of the story, read between the lines, and appreciate all that’s been crafted into it, I think readers will need to be 13 or older. It would make a fabulous book club choice, with gobs of discussion fodder.

An unusually good novel with a genre-breaking format. I hope it gets some award attention.