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A Piece of the Sky: David Patneaude

Author David Patneaude was kind enough to send me a copy of his new middle grade mystery, A Piece of the Sky. It comes in a bright, dust-jacket free edition, with a picture on the cover, reminiscent of the Hardy Boys books. And maybe it was because of the cover, maybe not, but I felt that it carried echoes of the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries. It's an adventure story, with much of the action taking place during a multi-day hike through the woods.

A Piece of the Sky is told in alternating narratives, 150 years apart, as two different boys each search for a hidden meteorite in the Oregon hills. Most of the story takes place in the present, when fourteen-year-old Russell travels to the small town of Port Orford for the summer. Russell and his mother are cleaning out his grandfather's home, because of his grandfather's fading memory. Russell longs to connect with his grandfather, and to bring back the older man's personality. (This dynamic reminded me of Jumping the Scratch, by Sarah Weeks, though the two books are very different from one another). Russell is looking for a way to "open the lock on Grandpa's world".

Thrown in a scrap of meteorite, handed down in the family through several generations, a mysterious old man named Legs, just out of prison for manslaughter, and a bad guy named Full Moon Mullins, and you have all of the ingredients for a non-stop adventure. Russell, and his two friends, Phoebe and Isaac, end up hiking deep into the hills in search of the meteorite, and facing serious danger along the way.

This story has an old-fashioned feel to it. There are modern references (Phoebe's ear buds, Isaac's time fighting in Iraq), but you get the feeling that these references could be changed to others from 20 or 30 years ago, and the rest of the story wouldn't need to change much. I don't think that's literally true. There's a nurse (Phoebe and Isaac's mom) who takes care of Russell's grandfather and Legs in her home. Russell and Phoebe are runners, rather than the bicycle riders that they might have been in an earlier tale. And Isaac's shell-shock and war injury are not glossed over. The old-fashioned thing is more of a feeling - a tone - that the book carries. Personally, I really enjoyed it. I felt like a kid again, reading under the covers with a flashlight, because I had to know how the story ended. I'm pretty sure that I dreamed about Russell, Phoebe, and Isaac hiking through those woods, too. It's clear that the author has actually hiked in an area much like the one described.

While the characterization in this book isn't deep (I had a hard time getting a fix on Phoebe, in particular), the craftsmanship and pacing are excellent. The author demonstrates a flair for spare description that gets things across, without excessive detail.  For example, here is Russell's impression of his mother:

She'd gotten thin enough in the past month to pass for a high school kid, except for the dark shadows around her eyes. She was on the worrying-about-your-dad diet, the one where you spend all day not eating much and trying to figure out what to do with all the stuff collected over seventy years of someone's life. And what to do about that life itself.

And here is Russell's impression of Port Orford:

Besides being a place where my grandpa had lot his wife and then his mind, Port Orford practically wore one of those Kick Me signs on its rear end. It had no movie theater, no music store, no video game arcade, no running track, no baseball park, no pizza place. The weather was good for one thing: running. The ocean water was so cold I couldn't go in past my knees without threatening future generations of Nolans.

And one final snippet, "Leg's eyes lit up like night windows." Simple, but evocative. All in all, A Piece of the Sky is an engaging read. I recommend it for middle grade boys and girls who are fans of mysteries or survival stories. I think that it will also be a hit with adults looking to re-capture the feeling of those books from childhood, the ones that turned us into mystery lovers in the first place.

This is David Patneaude's ninth book. The most well-known of his earlier titles is Thin Wood Walls, about what it's like to be a young Japanese-American boy in Seattle after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Though I haven't read that one, the reviews are positive (see Ms. Mac's review at Check It Out), and I think that it would make an excellent companion read to Cynthia Kadohata's Weedflower. I hope that this title will garner the author more wide-spread attention.

Book: A Piece of the Sky
Author: David Patneaude
Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company
Original Publication Date: 2007 (available from Amazon now, though the publication date is listed as April)
Pages: 194
Age Range: 10-14
Source of Book: A review copy from the author
Other Blog Reviews of David Patneaude's books: From the Fishbowl reviews Deadly Drive, Battle of the Books reviews Colder than Ice, Cross Talk about YA Lit reviews Someone Was Watching

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.