Reviews: The Scavengers by Michael Perry

The Scavengers by Michael Perry (HarperCollins, Expected Publication September 2014)

The old adage goes “you can’t judge a book by its cover”  and it’s true–most of the time.  Or at least, you can’t judge a book, but sometimes you might just put a lot of hope behind the book matching the cover.    Which brings me to The Scavengers.  From the moment I saw that cover,  I wanted the book to match–because there’s soooo much good going on with that cover!  Well folks, what you see on that cover?  It’s pretty much a good idea of what you’re going to find inside.  There’s a strong middle grade female protagonist, there’s an old abandoned car, there’s bubble cities, and yup, there are chickens too.

Welcome to a near future, an imagined dystopia  where the weather and safety is breaking down, making it a risky buisiness to live on the land.  People have two choices in this brave new world, to live in promised safety and happiness underBubble in great domed cities,  or to struggle to survive OutBubble, on a land with unpredictable weather, fierce predators and no modern conveniences.  Maggie, aka Ford Falcon is a twelve-year-old whose  family lives OutBubble,  scavenging what they can find to make a life.  With her father acting strangely and her mother caring for her younger brother, it’s up to Ford Falcon to help take care of her family.    She knows how to scare off a fierce solar bear and face down a whole milling mob of GreyDevils.  She’s strong and capable and able to face just about anything that life throws her way (other than a certain villainous rooster).  But when her family goes missing, this gutsy tween will need all her resources to survive and plan a rescue.

Where to start?  Let’s start with the first person narrator, Maggie.  Our protagonist has decided that in the face of the rough new world she lives in, she needs a new name, so she christens herself “Ford Falcon” taking the name from the abandoned car that she’s claimed as her own.  This is a girl who has looked danger in the eyes and figured out she’d rather face it than run from it.  Her voice in the narrative ranges from thoughtful to funny, but always honest as she pulls readers into her world. Ford Falcon’s not yet into the open teenage rebellion years–but she’s got an independent streak a mile long and it serves her well in her environment.  It doesn’t hurt that she’s is genuinely likable–a character with an earthy “can-do” attitude, a streak of temper and just enough vulnerability for reader’s to really identify with her.  Ford Falcon’s first person narration of the story never falters.  From her ongoing exasperation with the local rooster and his hacking crow, to her taking time out for “the Earl and poetry”, Ford Falcon continually shows herself not to be a caricature or a stereotype, but a solid character with her flaws, quirks and strengths.  While it’s not uncommon in tween fiction featuring adventure and rescue to have the protagonist joined by a friend, or group of friends in pursuit of their goal,  it’s fairly rare to find a lone female protagonist in this kind of story.  Not that Maggie is completely alone, but she acts for herself, and puts the weight of the world on her own shoulders.

Ford Falcon does have a best friend, but he’s  not a kid.  “Toad” as he’s called is an old man who has lived on the land for years.  His kindness to her entire family in helping them get settled and  support and feed themselves is truly a lifesaver.  Toad’s relationship with young Ford Falcon is something special.  He’s the unapologetic   friend who teaches Ford Falcon all the kinds of survival tricks she’ll need, he’s the one who gives her a hunting knife, and he’s the one who never doubts  her abilities.  When  her own father disappears for long hours and sometimes days and her mother wishing she’d act more refined, Toad embraces Maggie as Ford Falcon without reservation.  Of course Toad is a quirky individual himself, constantly engaging in wordplay, mixing up words in spoonerisms, using pig latin, or simply mangling the language to what he wishes it to be.

For all that I love the literary aspect of Toad’s wordplay, it winds up being my one real issue with this novel.  Toad delights in his wild language and everything out of his mouth is somehow mangled or recreated  rather than direct speech.  While that’s charming when we first meet him, the device is used a little too often in the first few chapters, and it may turn some readers off the story.  It makes reading any passage of conversation with him more challenging, and while I don’t mind it occasionally, the frequency of it pulled me out of the story a few times.  Like a character with a colorful accent or conversational tic, it’s useful to add flavor and quirky humor–but in small doses.  Too much feels saturated and overdone.

The story takes place in a near future that imagines what North America might be like as climate change continues.  The author imagines genetic manipulation of animals and plants taken to whole new levels–and most of it not so good.  In this world, the giant company that manipulates the DNA of their corn has conspired with the government to move most of the people into Bubble cities and seize the land for their corn production.  It’s pretty obvious who the villains are–and it’s also pretty clear where the author’s views lie in regards to these issues.    But the dystopian setting stands as more of a backdrop to the protagonist’s relationship with her family and how she sets about rescuing them.  It’s Ford Falcon’s story and it’s a good one.

This is Michael Perry’s first book for kids, and I’ve got to say, I think he nails it.  I suspect our author found inspiration for our characters’ lives OutBubble from his own experiences.  His adult memoir,  Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs and Parenting (2009) seems to have a lot of  farming trials and challenges of the sorts that face Ford Falcon and her family. And the plot description on Goodreads mentions that Michael owns a Ford Falcon . . . so it definitely implies he used pieces of his own experiences to color in his characters lives.

Does anyone know if there’s an official term for the inclusion of real book titles in other books?  I couldn’t find one when I checked.  The Scavengers includes three real book titles–all of which help to forge the character of Ford Falcon.  The first of these is Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder (c1935).  This is the book that Maggie learns to read with, and seems utterly appropriate for their lifestyle  on a different sort of frontier.  The second is The American Boy’s Handy Book  by Daniel Carter Beard (c1880) and yes, this is a real book.  The third is The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, this is a book that sort of defines Maggie’s relationship with her mother and their sessions of tea and poetry.  The love of books pours through the pages of this story–and how a writer can speak to the heart of someone lifetimes in the future.  For a story that’s about living on a futuristic frontier, rescuing family and uncovering corporate plots and secrets, it’s a surprisingly literary book

This is Michael Perry’s first book for middle grade readers, and he’s done an amazing job of balancing the adventure and suspense with a satisfying ending.   There’s room here for a series if he so chooses, but the story can stand on its own.   This is among my favorite reads so far this year and I can’t wait to hand it to my young readers hungry for more books!

Note: An advanced reader copy was provided by the publisher.

Publisher: HarperCollins 

Publication Date: Expected September 2014

ISBN13:    9780062026163

Recommended for grades 4 and up.

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About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on June 1, 2014, in General Posts, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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