on July 14, 1999
David Wagoner pulls you in with a giant yank from his very first lines:
When the bank blew up, I had just got to the part in "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" where it was an Oink Oink here and an Oink Oink there (it's easier to grunt on a mouth harp than do most anything else, so I was stretching it out a little to make up for spoiling it later on when the Gobble Gobbles commenced), and at first I thought I'd busted my eardrums from blowing too hard.
In one short paragraph the reader knows he or she is in for wild times, and Wagoner delivers. Tracker is the moving, astonishing, touching and hilarious story of 15-year-old orphan Eli in 1889 Colorado. Raised by an abusive livery stable owner, Eli has lived over a barn all his life, pitching hay by day but dreaming by night of following his hero, the half-Indian old gray-headed man, Tracker Byrd.
When bandits dynamite and then rob the First National Bank of Sheepshank, Colorado, Eli seizes his chance. If he can hire on as part of the posse chasing the villains, he will at the same time learn tracking from Tracker Byrd.
Eli and Tracker split off from the rest of the posse, finding excitement and trouble all along the trail. One walking package of excitement and trouble is Miz Cherry Bastion, a girl so beautiful but headstrong that Eli calls her "both sides of a sermon, the harp music and the sinner's roast."
David Wagoner departs from the stale Western formula of the straight-and-narrow, do-gooder hero and his lily-white, sweet-as-honey love interest. Eli is honest but human, and grapples with his conscience often-with sometimes shaky but hilarious results. Miz Cherry Bastion is about as sweet as vinegar and twice as hard to swallow. Eli's so-called hero, Tracker Byrd, is a hard-drinking, wisecracking old varmint who alternatively delights and dismays Eli.
By painting the characters believable and human, Wagoner does young adult readers a favor. He uses real-life personalities and problems in a make-believe world to allow his readers to learn some concrete answers for today's topsy-turvy world. Sometimes a model or mock-up of a troublesome situation helps overcome perception difficulties.
Tracker is a good role model for today. David Wagoner uses no objectionable language or situations in his novel-he doesn't have to. His clear writing and down-to-earth backwoods style language and wisdom (mixed with generous portions of humor) tell a good story of how far perseverance, trust, and a good healthy does of optimism can take you. Listen to Tracker teaching Eli as Eli teaches the reader:
"Let me put it to you serious," [Tracker] says. "All right, you're chasing some bank robbers. What had you figured on doing when you caught up with them?" "Why, I don't know," I says, shamed to admit I'd been thinking more about improving myself and looking for sign than anything else. It was a beautiful day, and the sun made every crack, stick, grass-blade, weed-stalk, and rock-edge, near and far, look like it was fit to bust, just for the sheer pleasure of being itself and not shaped like nothing else nor colored the same nor standing or laying the same way. What difference did it make if we caught somebody or not? "Take them into custody, I reckon." "Where's that at?" Tracker says. "Where's that 'custody' at?" I tried to be patient with him. "I mean back to Sheepshank so's they can get a fair trial for bank-busting."
P.S. Anyone who has such fun with the English language is bound to be a good poet. Here's a chance to lure the unwary into poetry. David Wagoner is known more for his poetry today than his novels. If the young adult reader loves the novels, perhaps he or she will give the poetry a whack (although Wagoner's wonderfully irreverent way with words is absent in his poetry-too bad!) After all, David Wagoner himself thinks he's a better poet than novelist. Are you sure, David?