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Owls, sparkling snakes, barefoot boys and lots of mousetraps
on October 24, 2002
Carl Hiaasen forges into new territory: The kid book realm. Cleaned up and devoid of ... violence or much profanity, he makes a cute, quirky book that isn't limited to just kids. If anything, Mr. Hiaasen's literary gifts are more pronounced when there are no seedy elements to distract the readers.
Roy Eberhardt recently moved from beautiful Montana to the swampy mishmash of Miami, and he's not thrilled about the change. He misses his old home, and the biggest, meanest bully of all, Dana Matherson, has taken a dislike to him. But on the bus, Roy catches a glimpse of a barefoot kid racing down the sidewalk. When he sees the boy a second time, he punches out Dana and pursues the kid (called Mullet Fingers, for a reason that will become evident late in the book).
A mystery vandal is sabotaging the site of a future pancake restaurant, pulling up stakes, sprat-painting a cop car, and setting loose a bunch of glittery cottonmouths. Things don't improve when Roy encounters the boy's sister, Beatrice, a very tall jock with muscles and teeth of steel. Beatrice warns Roy to stay away from Mullet Fingers, but Roy is already quite involved. Mullet Fingers is on a one-boy campaign to save the tiny burrowing owls that live in the construction site -- and will be buried alive in their burrows when the construction begins. Roy begins walking the line between law and outlaw, right and wrong, trying to save Mullet Fingers and the tiny owls.
Roy is the kind of kid that readers love instantly -- he's a quiet Charlie Brown who comes out of his shell for a good cause. (And he moons Dana) Mullet Fingers is a little harder to pin down, a strangely but that seems to be Hiaasen's intent. Beatrice is half-hilarious, half menacing -- the scene where she bites off part of Roy's bike tire is a scream. Dana is a pain in the backside, and readers will laugh and rejoice at his comeuppance. And Hiaasen outdoes himself with Roy's parents. He doesn't make them stupid, condescending or obtuse, but rather they trust in the big corporations a bit too much. And one of the most touching elements of this book is that Roy asks his parents for their advice, and protects his kindly mother from the knowledge of how Mullet Fingers' own mother despises him.
Unlike many other adult authors who write a book for kids, Hiaasen doesn't dumb it down. He seems to have faith that his kiddie readers can handle tales of corporate double-dealing, enviromental mandayes, and paperwork that most people never have to think about. Kooky elements like a B-movie actress, an ambitious if well-meaning cop (the one whose car was painted), a baby alligator in a porta-john and a bunch of sparkling cottonmouths with taped mouths add an element of surreality to the book.
"Hoot" is a hoot, but it's also a charmingly serious novel. Kids will like Roy and the effective but realistic tactics he uses for the owls, and adults will like the thought-provoking storyline and quirky humor. A keeper.