Friday, June 12, 2009

Spenser Comes of Age: Chasing the Bear by Robert B. Parker

I've always saved the latest Robert B. Parker mystery--especially those of his hyper-macho Boston detective Spenser for downtime reading--beach bag fare, the post-Christmas-week treat, the school's out celebratory read--but it looks like Parker is determined to make Spenser part of my daily reading grind, as in his latest young adult novel, Chasing the Bear: A Young Spenser Novel. After getting his feet wet in the junior novel trade with two other well-received titles, Edenville Owls and The Boxer and the Spy, Parker has gone for a prequel (a way-back prequel) to his best-selling Spenser Mystery series, a young adult novel in which he relates the coming of age of the fourteen-year-old Spenser.

In his characteristic terse style, Parker frames the scene with a casual conversation between the mature Spenser and his lady love Susan Silverman, as they pass a lazy afternoon watching the swan boats ply the pond in the Boston Public Gardens.

"I was just thinking how well I know you and how close we are and yet there are parts of your life that I know nothing about," Susan muses.


"Like what you were like as a kid; it's hard to imagine you as a kid."

And prompted by Susan's questions, Spenser tells her some of the events of his fourteenth summer--his defense of a diminutive Hispanic boy against local bullies and his rescue of his friend Jeannie Haden, kidnapped by her drunken, abusive father and held hostage in a primitive camp on a small island in the local river.

Raised by his father and two maternal uncles, Spenser recounts the independent, masculine influence of these three quiet but strong men who schooled him in self-reliance and a unique moral code. "There's legal," his father says, "and then there's right," and it is this advice that governs the seminal event in Spenser's own coming of age.

When the terrified Jeannie mouths "Help!" to Spenser as she is driven by in her father's battered truck, he trails them to the river, where he sees Jeannie's father force her into his bass boat and head down river. Spenser follows in a small skiff, helped only by a broken paddle, and drifts downstream until he spots the boat tied up at a wooded island. By night he steals through the woods to their camp, where he waits until the drunken Haden passes out and is able to lead Jeannie back to his boat. In the darkness they push off and follow the current down the stream, hoping to find help before her father awakes and finds Jeannie gone.

But after following the river all night, the two hear the sound of Haden's motor upstream. Spenser rigs the paddle and Jeannie's blanket to approximate a human shape inside the skiff and pushes it into the current as a decoy, while he and Jeannie climb up a train trestle and she runs for the woods. Then, noticing a metal sign warning of dangerous falls ahead, Spenser removes the sign and hides, watching the intoxicated Haden speed after the drifting boat down the river to his death.

Back home, Spenser's father feels he did the right thing and should remain quiet about his part in the man's death, but tells his son that the decision is ultimately his.

"If you need to tell the law everything that happened, and I can't talk you out of it, then I'll go down to the station with you and go the whole way, whatever way it goes."

"It's never a mistake to do what you think is right," one of his uncles adds.

"Every person is afraid sometimes." his father says. "Thing is not to let it run you. Thing is to go ahead and do what you need to do."

"I think I got to tell the truth," Spenser says.

It's the familiar personal ethic that adult readers find in the final chapter of each Spenser mystery, but not a bad one for young readers to mull over as well. Some teens may find the interspersed Spenser-Silverman ruminations on life and love a bit tedious, but Parker's trademark brisk dialogue and fast-paced action will nevertheless carry the young reader along swiftly. As always, Robert B. Parker knows how to tell a tale with minimal fuss and bother, and his young adult fiction is no exception.

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