THE TRUE BLUE SCOUTS OF SUGAR MAN SWAMP by Kathi Appelt – Review by Teri S. Lesesne
I am in love with two raccoons and one very large snake. Who knew that this city girl could ever cozy up to the marshy swampland guarded by two scouts named J’miah and Bingo? Yet from that first chapter as these two erstwhile raccoons assume their first assignment, I was smitten. I suspect anyone not drawn into this tale of political plotting sweetened by the best sugar pies anywhere in the world simply needs a bit more encouragement, perhaps from the Crotalus Horridus Giganticus, aka Gertrude, the larger than life rattler than guards the fearsome Sugar Man. So, grab a pair of waders and follow me into the swamps for this tale of daring rescues, alligator wrestlers, and tall tales from long ago.
Once upon a time, there was a creature born of swamp. He was taller than his cousins, Sasquatch and Yeti. Now he slumbers in that same swamp. J’miah and Bingo know they must wake Sugar Man when danger approaches, but they also know that this same creature does not take well to being awakened. Thus, when they espy danger from the front seat of their lookout, an old DeSoto, the two worry about how best to approach Sugar Man without incurring his wrath or that of Gertrude. What could possibly need the intervention of Swamp Man, you might ask (and, sister, I can see that puzzled look on your face even through the moss covered trees of the swamp). The danger is not the canebrake snakes that guard the sweetest sugarcane in the world. Nope, for Chap Brayburn, the danger is losing the bakery, The Paradise Pies Café, he and his mother run near the swamp. There are big plans for this land, you see. Jaeger Stitch wants to fill in the swamp and build the largest gator wrestling venue in the world, a place where she can demonstrate just why she holds the title for gator wrestling. She has enlisted the assistance of Sonny Boy Beaucoup, a miserable man who loves nothing more than cheating folks out of what is rightfully theirs. Add in a pack of marauding wild hogs, and the scene is set for danger, mystery, tall tales, and more. Sister, it is just getting interesting now.
How does Kathi Appelt juggle all of these seemingly disparate elements, you might ask (go ahead, sister, ask away)? Simply, she is a master storyteller who follows the ancient oral tradition that effortlessly weaves the larger than life tall tale elements with a very real plot line about political double-crossing land grabs. As she demonstrated so aptly in her Newbery Honor winning The Underneath, Appelt balances the real with the fantastic (and don’t you wish, sister that the imagined were real after all?) seamlessly. As always with Appelt’s stories, it is the voice that draws readers into the world of J’miah and Bingo and their derring-do as Scouts and into the world of Chap and his battle to preserve the swamp as it is rather than as a parking lot for Sonny Boy and Jaeger’s plans and into the world of the swamp itself, a setting that is a key player throughout the entire novel. Add in one more element, humor. The eccentric characters, the feral hogs, the raccoon scouts, and those snakes create situations right out of the tall tales we loved as children. More, they create hysterically funny scenes (Buzzie and Clydine, the rather overwhelmed parents of the huge brood of feral hogs, or Jaeger kissing a gator, or any one of a myriad of scenes). As I sunk into the marshy land of the swamp, it was Appelt’s voice, that honeyed drawl, that I heard as if she were sitting beside me whispering into my ear, “All will be well, sister.” And indeed, it was.
There is one more voice I long to hear. Lyle Lovett is the narrator for the audiobook for The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp. Though I have not heard even a syllable of the audiobook yet, I have the distinct feeling that I will once again fall into sugar man swamp and stand< er sit< beside J’miah and Bingo on the front seat of that DeSoto and watch the stars come out over the swamp.
Link for the Audio of the Book:
Teri S. Lesesne is an NBC member and professor of children’s and YA literature at Sam Houston State University in Texas.