Monday, June 14, 2021

Hoot by Carl Hiaasen

Source of book: Audiobook from the library


For the last 7+ years, since I started traveling and camping throughout the western United States with the kids - trying to see as many of the national parks as we can before the kids grow up and move away - we have also been using audiobooks to make the miles pass faster and keep me awake. As part of this, we have been listening to many of the Newbery Award winners and honor books, not in any systematic order, but as they seem interesting and as they become available in our library system. Hoot won the Newbery honor in 2003. 

This book is unusual for a few reasons. First, Carl Hiaason was primarily known for writing blackly humorous crime thrillers set in Florida before he decided to write something his nieces and nephews could read. Second, I am not sure I have ever read a book that combined environmentalism with slapstick humor before. One reason I picked the book is that my eldest complains that there are too many books with “middle school hetero romances” already. Not that we tend to listen to those much, but this is a book completely devoid of romance, even if it is about middle schoolers. 


Roy is the new kid in a Florida small town. His dad works for the DOJ, so he moves a lot. Florida is not, shall we say, like Montana, and a thoughtful kid doesn’t fit in that well. Predictably, the school bully decides to target him, and doesn’t back off even after Roy breaks his nose. On the other hand, the athletic girl everyone is scared of, Beatrice (“the bear”) eventually takes a liking to him. But the real mystery starts when Roy sees a barefoot boy running away from the school bus, and tries to catch him. 


Meanwhile, a giant chain restaurant is looking to build a franchise in town, but strange things keep happening on the building site. Alligators in the port-a-potties, cottonmouths with glitter-painted tails around the perimeter, seats stolen off the construction equipment. Is it just juvenile vandals, or could it be connected to the burrowing owls that the foreman seems intent on denying exist? 


Since the book is intended to be a bit of a mystery, I won’t reveal anything else about the plot. 


There are some things that I thought were well done in this book. Roy’s parents aren’t the clueless or unsupportive parents you find in a lot of books. Rather, they are the sort of progressive, thoughtful, supportive yet not helicoptering sorts you might want for your own parents. They take a role in the book that is quite positive, without being too interfering. They feel like real people, not “parents.” 


I also loved the way that Roy responds to the bully. He continues to engage, and offer a truce. The bully, who is a bit of a stock character, is unable to learn the lesson, however, no matter how many times he ends up suffering as a result of messing with Roy. This leads, naturally, to a number of humorous set pieces - and most of the laughs in the book. If the bully isn’t nuanced, Roy is, and I appreciated that it was his resourcefulness that succeeds. 


I did (as I often do) have a bit of a quibble with the portrayal of legal (and police) stuff. I get that small town Florida does things….differently. But it seems extremely unlikely that even a Florida cop would be able to flagrantly violate the rule about talking with a suspect who has an attorney. (Particularly without, it appears, the attorney raising bloody hell. Any attorney worth anything would definitely have gone ballistic.) 


On the other hand, I think Hiaasen is spot on that it is difficult to address environmental issues without getting the press involved. Lawyers are important, clearly, but public opinion is what gets things done most of the time. 


The best parts of the book, though, were the ones that seemed to have come directly from the author’s own experience. Hiaasen admitted that he borrowed a good bit from his own childhood for the book - not for the plot, of course, but for the characters and setting. He clearly knows and loves Florida, and the details of the natural world show his years of observation. 


Hoot is definitely a bit different, a change of pace from much of what is out there. 


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