Heather Vogel Frederick
Here’s a fun story for middle grade readers (ages 8-12) who are trying to combat the wintertime blahs. Portland-based children’s book author Heather Vogel Frederick has devised a sure-to-please read with “Absolutely Truly,” which appears to be the first book in a new mystery series.
Here’s the set-up: since her father’s return from Afghanistan, 12-year-old Truly Lovejoy’s family has been in turmoil. With just a few days left during his final tour of duty, Truly’s dad is badly injured in an IED explosion, and ends up having his arm amputated. He returns home a changed man, and Truly and her two older brothers and two younger sisters have to adjust to the new “Silent Man” who lives in their midst.
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When their dad is unable to find work in Austin, the place where they’d planned to settle down after his retirement from the Army, the family pulls up roots once again and moves to the dad’s tiny hometown of Pumpkin Falls, New Hampshire, where he takes over a struggling bookstore that’s been in the family for a century.
Truly and her siblings have to adjust to a new town and a new school. They’re also put to work in the bookstore – free labor to try to keep the business going. That’s when Truly stumbles across an undelivered letter stuck inside an autographed first edition of “Charlotte’s Web.” The book could be a godsend – valued at several thousand dollars, its sale could be enough to dig the bookstore out of the financial hole it is in. But before they can sell to the highest bidder, the book disappears from the bookcase where they’ve been safeguarding it.
That’s a mystery that Truly cannot solve, but before the book went missing she had extracted the unsent letter. From the postage affixed to the envelope, she and her new friends determine that the letter is 20 years old. It is written with cryptic Shakespearean references, and it appears to be a clue to a treasure hunt. Over the coldest, darkest months of winter, they puzzle out the meaning, and one clue leads to the next, involving interesting venues and scrapes with danger.
The Pumpkin Falls setting is quintessentially New England, with a town square, a covered bridge, a maple syrup business, and a much-anticipated “January thaw” that doesn’t show up until February.
Vogel has invested her lead character with some intriguing interests and attributes. Truly, her 7th grade pals, and her siblings are a pretty wholesome bunch, but the dialogue and teasing are snarky enough to have a realistic ring.
The subplot featuring Truly’s wounded warrior dad is poignant and ultimately encouraging – it’s a sad fact that many middle grade readers with parents in the military will relate to have that kind of anxiety looming over a household.
Pumpkin Falls is filled with quirky characters who play important roles in this book, and could figure significantly in future books if this develops into a series – “Absolutely Truly” is a good start.
The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at email@example.com