Book: The Girl from Felony Bay
Author: J. E. Thompson
Age Range: 9-12
The Girl from Felony Bay is a middle grade mystery set against a deeply layered South Carolina coast backdrop. Abbey Force has had a bad year. Her father is in a coma after an apparent fall, accused of a crime that Abbey is certain he didn't commit. Abbey's home, Reward Plantation, has been sold to cover remunerations from the crime. Abbey is living with her snake-like Uncle Charlie, and Charlie's downtrodden wife Ruth. As the summer vacation after sixth grade begins, Abbey's number one goal is to prove that her father didn't commit the crime he is accused of. She is helped in her quest by Bee Force, the daughter of Reward's new owner.
There's a lot to like about The Girl from Felony Bay. The mystery is well-developed, with clues parcelled out gradually, so that young readers can figure things out along with Abbey. I know that I read this quite quickly, eager to understand what was happening. I found the resolution of the mystery satisfying, but was pleased that the author didn't feel the need to fix every single loose end.
Thompson's characterization is superb. Abbey fairly leaps from the page, and a number of secondary characters are revealed to have unexpected (but plausible) depths. The friendship between Abbey and Bee develops a bit quickly, but Thompson doesn't gloss over the awkward aspects of their relationship. Bee is living in the house that Abbey grew up in, sleeping in her very bedroom. And Abbey and Bee both understand immediately that Bee's family is descended from slaves that Abbey's ancestors owned (it having been common practice for freed slaves to take the last name of their owners as they left the plantations). These uncomfortable realities could have derailed the girls' friendship, but don't.
Abbey's voice frequently made me smile. She has a wry humor, and a keen wit, with just a hint of the south in her diction. Like this:
"He sipped on his drink and squinted at me with the same face he'd use if he just discovered the meat in his lunch sandwich had gone bad. Uncle Charlie is about six feet two, nearly as tall as Daddy, but no longer thin. He's not exactly fat, either, at least not yet. He reminds me of a candle that's been sitting in the sun too long and is starting to bulge in the wrong places." (Chapter 2)
"She managed to hold back her sorrow when I told her I wouldn't be around for dinner." (Chapter 17, in reference to a neglectful and lazy aunt)
"Rufus was jumping up and down, which is what he did most of the time, since Labrador retrievers are just born happy. The only time they are even happier than usual is when there is a bowl of food nearby." (Chapter 29)
Thompson also does a fine job in portraying the South Carolina coastal region, including its beauties, inconveniences, and dangers. Like this:
"We could still see the river through the trees off to our left, it's brown water glittering like hot butterscotch. To our right the heavy shrubbery of palmetto trees, live oaks, hanging drapes of Spanish moss, and tangles of honeysuckle and wild oleander and river oats and plants I couldn't begin to name cut off our view after only a few yards." Chapter 7)
"After another couple minutes, the cacophony of the frogs had become almost deafening, so I knew One Arm Pond had to be directly to our right. I couldn't see it through the leaves, not even moonlight reflecting off the surface, but I could smell the musty odor of pluff mud. I was studying every single root, vine, or stick with great intensity now, and that's when I came to a quick stop.
Two feet ahead of me, way to close for comfort, something that looked at first like a thick black root had just crawled from underneath a layer of dead magnolia leaves. It was maybe four feet long and as thick as a beer can in the middle." (Chapter 18)
So there you have it. An absorbing mystery for middle grade readers, with strong characters, and a setting that the reader can practically smell and taste. The fact that The Girl from Felony Bay also matter-of-factly takes on race relations in the south (including a sub-plot regarding heirs' property rights "and how a lot of African American people have gotten cheated out of valuable land over the years") is a nice bonus.
Although the two main characters are girls (and there's a girl in the title), I think that The Girl from Felony Bay is quite boy-friendly. There are, after all, alligators and poisonous snakes, and hints of pirate treasure. The Girl from Felony Bay is a great choice for anyone looking for a middle grade mystery that has suspense and complexity as well as emotional depth. Highly recommended.
Publisher: Walden Pond Press (@WaldenPondPress)
Publication Date: April 30, 2013
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher
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