Sunday, November 04, 2018

Eco-Spy in the Sky! Squirm by Carl Hiaasen

This one kid, he got kicked out of school. The kid's name was Jammer, and I got his locker.

Who knows what he kept in there, but he must've given out his combination to half the school. Kids were always messing with my stuff. So I put a snake inside the locker. Problem solved.

It was an Eastern diamondback, a serious reptile. The freak-out factor was high.

Don't worry. I taped its mouth shut. That's a tricky move, not for rookies. I wouldn't try it again. I just wanted kids to stay out of my locker.

Which they now do.

It's no surprise Billy is called Snake Boy wherever he lives. Billy Dickens' family moves around central Florida a lot because his mom is a serious bald eagle freak, so whenever her eagles move their nest, the Dickenses move, too. Billy likes eagles, but snakes are his passion. Once when he saw a guy swerve his motorcycle to run over a snake, Billy tracked him down and made sure his bike wound up at the bottom of a canal. Whatever school he goes to, he seems to keep the nickname "Snake Boy."

So it's no surprise that when Billy he discovers that his father is living with his new family in Montana, doing something mysterious in nature preserves "for the government," he buys his own airplane ticket and heads for Montana solo to ask his dad some important questions.

Billy hasn't seen his father since he was four, and barely remembers him, but somehow he's not surprised when he learns that his father is actually stalking an ultra-rich, self-proclaimed great white hunter, Lincoln Baxter, who preys on the most endangered animals, in this case a male grizzly. The griz gets away, but Billy only gets a cryptic note, dropped from his dad's drone, saying "Sorry for the lost years."

And with the help of his new-found step-sister, Summer, the next time Billy follows his father's drone into the mountains, he also finds his dad, wounded and staked out with a dead deer as grizzly bait for trophy hunter Baxter. And when the showdown with Baxter comes, Baxter seems to hold all the cards.

"So, your plan was to let the grizzly kill my dad," I say, "and then you'd shoot the bear and tell the game wardens... "

"Justified," says Baxter. "It's completely legal to take a grizzly in self-defense."

Suddenly the birds stopped singing. Something heavy is advancing through the woods. It's not trying to be sneaky. Baxter raises his rifle to his shoulder, while I reach for the pocket where I put the can of bear spray. At the same moment Baxter takes aim at the fierce commotion, I take aim, too...

Blasting the poacher point blank in the face.

"Good shot, Billy," Dad says, as he lurches out of a thicket, trailing cut ropes "How'd you know it was me?"

"Wild guess."

It's another wild ride through the wilds in Carl Hiaasen's latest eco-thriller, Squirm (Alfred A. Knopf, 2018), with the author's off-beat Florida ecological heroes meeting the big-time rare animal poaching industry in a timely novel--with the engaging and resourceful Billy Dickens and his weird but dedicated dad trying to preserve grizzlies and Florida panthers and along the way find a new relationship based on their mutual love of wild animals. Not many writers for middle readers offer outdoor survival skills, family loyalties, and a place for characters with unusual qualities, but in his books for young people Hiaasen manages to remain the master of the maverick hero whose ecological mission finds danger and adventure in the wild. Says Bulletin, "Hiaasen's ecological passion shows no sign of abatement, and neither does his faith in kid resourcefulness and family resilience."

Carl Hiaasen's earlier humorous and exciting eco-novels also star young protagonists (mostly boys and indispensable sisters or step-sisters) who manage to foil ecological villains in his top-selling, Newbery-winning Hoot and Flush, (see reviews here), Chomp (review here), Scat (review here), and Skink--No Surrender (Skink Series) (review here).

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