Friday, February 26, 2016

"The Game Is Afoot!" Tru and Nelle by G. Neri

When Truman first spotted Nelle, he thought she was a boy. Barefoot and dressed in overalls with a boyish haircut, she perched on a stone wall that separated their rambling wood homes. He was trying to avoid her stare by pretending to read his book.

"Hey, you!" she said.

Truman gazed up from pages. He was sitting quietly on a wicker chair on the side porch of his cousins' house, dressed in a little white sailor suit. "Are you talking to me?" he said in a high wispy voice.

"Come here," she commanded.

Truman was taken aback. "You're a ...

Nelle stared back. Truman's high voice, white-blond hair, and sailor outfit had thrown her for a loop.

"You're a
boy?" she asked, incredulous.

It's not a propitious meeting. Two misfit kids, self-possessed but lonely, are drawn to each other, and when Nelle spots the cover of Truman's book, The Adventure of the Dancing Men: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery, she senses a kinship to this strange, bossy, but sissified boy. With some bragging about his days of tap-dancing on a Mississippi steamboat, he admits that he's been left by both parents with his elderly cousins, and despite herself, Nelle is intrigued. She takes possession of the book imperiously, promising to return it when she's "good 'n' done" with it.

And with that, a friendship is made. Nelle Harper introduces Truman to life in the small Alabama town, the bullies, the Court House, and her enticing treehouse, where the two bond over their love of Sherlock Holmes and conspire to solve mysteries of their own. Naturally, Tru has to be Sherlock, allowing Nelle to be his Watson, and neighbor Jennings (a.k.a, Big Boy) is assigned the role of Lestrade. Truman's cousin Sook even turns a couple of old baseball caps into a deerstalker hat, and they are ready for action. All they need is a case.

And a suitable mystery, a break-in at the local drugstore, soon presents itself. Nelle's suspicions fall on the local bully, Elliott, called Boss, and his sidekick Billy Eugene. And when Nelle discovers a slingshot contraption in a tree, rigged to fire rocks  through the store's plate glass windows, they have real evidence in hand. The slingshot has a curved shape carved into the handle--a snake, or perhaps the letter S. Nelle leans toward the snake as the clue, but Tru has another insight, their reclusive young neighbor, Sonny Boular.

The game is afoot!

Nelle and Tru's detecting lead them into late-night surveillance. Recruiting Sook's cook, Little Bit, for cover for their pretense of catching fireflies, they duck down in the tall grass when they hear a group of men assembling in the field.

Someone struck a match and lit a torch of some kind.

Truman's view was blocked by Little Bit, but he could see silhouettes of pointy heads. He saw the flames lick at the bottom of the sheets wrapped around the tree. The fire shot up the sheets and set the whole tree ablaze.

Only it wasn't a tree. It was a cross. And the men didn't have pointy heads; they were dressed in white robes and hoods with holes cut out for their eyes.

The Ku Klux Klan.

Young adult readers who know the the novel (or even the movie) may recognize the small town setting and the young Sherlock and Watson as the doppelgangers of the fictional Scout and Dill, the real Truman Capote and Nelle Harper Lee, two towering literary figures of the twentieth century whose childhood exploits led to the friendship which gave us To Kill a Mockingbird and whose shared passion for crime-solving led to Lee's uncredited but real collaboration on Capote's award-winning In Cold Blood.

That amazing happenstance of history makes for a new and delightfully fictionalized account of that friendship, G. Neri's Tru and Nelle (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), a novel with all the fun of the free-range childhood that Madisonville, Alabama, offered two brilliant but offbeat kids growing up together in the 1930s. Tru teases Nelle about her accent, calling her "Na-il Harpuh," and Nelle (Ellen, spelled backwards) gives the prissy Truman as good as she gets about his signature white suits, all in the easy style of kissin' cousins, in a portrayal of the early and epic pair of soul mates who were to cast a long shadow across the literary future. Savvy readers will recognize Atticus in Nelle's father "A.C." and Boo Radley in the mysterious "Sonny Boular." Readers who have yet to experience Harper Lee's landmark novel will find the re-told childhood adventures of Nelle and Tru both funny and poignant in their own right, perhaps steering them to read her Pulitzer-winning novel even before it is assigned to them in school.

"Tru and Nelle is a wonderfully imaginative re-creation of the childhoods of two great American writers, but even more, it is a novel that affirms the mysterious and glorious ways that friendship reaches across boundaries of all sorts to claim unexpected kinship." says two-time Newbery author, Gary D. Schmidt.

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