This little volume by Fenton Wood* is one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year. At core, it’s a coming-of-age tale of twelve-year-old Philo and his friends, who go on wild adventures in their attempt to set up their own local radio station. By “wild,” I don’t mean they engage in warfare or slay dragons while getting embroiled in warfare with trolls. Rather, this group of interconnected stories is firmly rooted in the nostalgia of an American childhood that instead has brushes with the supernatural and magic, the kind you might find in ghost stories around the campfire or in a Western.
Although the story does have actual magic in it, its interest for me lies in another kind of magic altogether than the kind that causes inanimate objects to come alive or that summons mythical creatures. The magic is the kind where kids make great schemes but only have their own ingenuity (maybe with the help of an adult here and there) to solve their problems, and their bicycles as transportation to turn their schemes into reality. This is the very essence of childhood as I remember it, and there are few books that capture this magic while keeping the story from being too dumb or cute, as kids’ books often are. One of the most successful attempts at this type of magic in my youth was The Goonies; however, the kids’ problems in this film involved the parents: the kids rode off on their bicycles not just to find pirate treasure, but to save their houses from destruction because their parents were too poor and/or weak to rise to the occasion. In Wood’s book, there is no overarching reason for the kids to create a radio station. They don’t need to do it; they aren’t trapped behind enemy lines and trying to contact the outside world or some other nonsense. The radio station is an end unto itself.
I don’t know why simple adventures like this aren’t done more frequently. Why are authors always tempted to create backstories involving parents and/or siblings and Big Stakes? It’s as if they can’t create the tension necessary to uphold a simple adventure and must use dramatic events to cover over their own authorial inadequacies. In fact, Wood allows us one very small glimpse into the parental world of Philo, and it’s so small that the parents come across as artificial creatures pushing traditionalist propaganda…I tend to agree with traditionalist propaganda, but that’s not the point. That’s a minor criticism, by the way. The scene with Philo’s parents could have aided the narrative better; however, it’s such a small part of the book that it doesn’t really matter all that much.
I’m giving this book four stars because it’s incomplete. It leaves a cliffhanger at the end with the promise of another book that won’t be out for a while. Once that book is out, I might upgrade to a five-star rating, but it’s too difficult to judge the cohesiveness of the plot (or world) without having the second part. Meanwhile, I highly recommend this book. The way the boys brainstorm their way out of problems with airing a small local radio station is worth every minute.
*I can’t find a link for the author; if somebody knows where to find him, I’ll add one.