The Dead Man In Indian Creek By Mary Downing Hahn

Nobody takes their story seriously. Nobody, that is, except the killer. And he takes them very seriously…

The Dead Man in Indian Creek

Another example of how YA lit makes real-life seem like such a let-down: reading this book along with Stephen King’s The Body and Richard Peck’s Dreamland Lake (possibly all in the same summer…) makes it seem like finding a dead body in the woods and then receiving many coming-of-age lessons is TOTALLY something that will happen to you by the age of 12 or 13!

Background: Mary Downing Hahn is probably best known for the deeply creepy, deeply beloved ghost story Wait Till Helen Comes, and she is skilled at balancing the more sensational aspects of the YA thriller genre (DEAD BODIES!) with the realistic aftermath of the characters’ experiences (SO MANY NIGHTMARES ABOUT DEAD BODIES!)

The Plot: 12 year old Matthew Armentrout has typical 7th grade problems: bratty younger sister, overprotective parents, a waistline that’s growing faster than his height and the fact that his crush has eyes only for his best friend. While he is rapidly losing patience with his BFF, Parker Pettengill, for poking fun at his weight and calling him by his last name (“I guess he thinks it sounds cool and sophisticated”), he admits that he doesn’t want Parker’s problems. The only child of a poor single mother, Parker has to deal with the fact his mom, Pam, has started (ewww) dating again.

Pam’s latest boyfriend is her boss, George, and it seems to be serious. Parker just doesn’t like the guy- for one thing he’s the first person that the Pettengill’s German shepherd, Otis, has ever taken a dislike to; also what’s up with the expensive gifts he keeps showering on Pam? Can he really make so much money selling antiques in their little town? Something is off about this guy.

Matt and Parker decide to take advantage of the warm weather and get in one last camping trip. With Otis in tow, they set off for a weekend of birdwatching and Twinkie-based meals in the woods, but things take a bad turn the first morning when they stumble upon a dead body face-up in the creek:

At first all I saw was a bundle of rags, old clothes or something caught in the roots by the bank. Then I saw a shoe. And a hand sort of waving at me under the water. But the worst part was the face. It looked like a rock, white and bumpy, hair streaming away like weeds, mouth and eyes open, staring at me.

While Matt is trying to keep from panic-barfing, Parker is distracted when he spots a figure on the bridge above the creek- he’s convinced that it is his mother’s boss!

They go directly to the police (where Matt finally pukes up his breakfast Twinkies). When they finally get the cops to take them seriously, they learn that the man was shot and Parker becomes convinced that George is a murderer. The boys are interviewed for the local paper (although Matt doesn’t get to enjoy being a junior high celebrity, since his barfing provides comic relief); Matt’s parents are concerned that the murder might be DRUG RELATED:

“Drugs,” Mom said. “Can you imagine? That’s the kind of thing that happens in Washington or Baltimore, not a nice little town like this.”

There were a lot of things Mom didn’t know about Woodcroft, I though. If I was the kind of kid who wanted drugs, I knew a dozen places to get them.

Matt is plagued by nightmares after the experience, and just wants things to get back to normal, but Parker is frustrated by the fact that the local police aren’t taking his claims about seeing George at the scene of the crime seriously.

Parker’s suspicions become more intense after they see a “drug gang” hanging out in the woods where they are building a fort:

Sometimes we find charred logs where they’ve had fires and beer cans and whiskey bottles lying around. The rocks are covered with the names of weird rock band and drug sayings sprayed on with black paint.

I am sad that Matt doesn’t get more specific about the graffiti. I’m imagining “TOKE A DOOBIE” and “QUEENSRŸCHE”.

Anyway, Parker is convinced that he remembers seeing the dead guy in a van with the Drug Gang earlier that summer. Obsessed with connecting George to the murder, he convinces Matt to help him stake out the antique store.

This presents no problem for Parker, since his mother is never around anyway:

With Pam away so much, the house was dirtier and dingier every time I came over. The sink was always full of dishes, and empty pizza boxes sat around for days with flies crawling on them. Even the plants on the window sill were turning brown and losing their leaves.

They spend the entire night peering through the shop windows, but all they see are Pam restoring some antique dolls and then making out with her boss. Matt, having a sensible mother who makes homemade pumpkin pies and regularly waters her house plants, gets grounded for his trouble, and is forbidden to leave the house even to go the library.

(This leads to a pretty hilarious scene where he has to do a book report on the only book in the house, a bodice-ripper romance novel of his mother’s)

However, Parker is still single-minded in his quest to nail George for something and when Matt is un-grounded he convinces him to join him in breaking in to the antique shop to look for “evidence”, which they find: George has been packing antique dolls full of cocaine. Parker grabs a doll to take to police for evidence, when George unexpectedly return to the shop with both Pam and the drug kingpin in tow; Parker and Matt are able to hide in an antique wardrobe, but George’s boss is NOT happy when he discovers that the drugs are missing.

Matt and Parker are able to escape the store, but the drug dealers are hot on their trail (and holding Pam hostage). Luckily, Matt and Parker acquire a third-act ally in Matt’s secret crush, Jennifer: a girl who thinks on her feet, she hides them in the basement, and then disguises them as her girlfriends the next morning so they can get to the police station with the evidence in the confusion of the town’s annual Halloween parade. As extra assurance, she gets her bratty younger sister to actually ferry the doll full of coke through the crowd and right up to the desk sergeant.

It is a good plan, but it is still a 7th grade plan, so Matt and Parker are jumped by the bad guys the minute they are out the front door (I guess Parker’s Vampira costume wasn’t as convincing as he thought it was). However, the drug dealers underestimate the two girls, and Jennifer shoots one in the eyes with a squirt gun full of cologne, while her sister viciously bites the other and makes a run for the police station. Don’t try to get between a 6 year old and a promised box of candy, adults!

Matt and Parker are bound and gagged and dumped in the woods (Jennifer eventually comes to their rescue) and the drug dealers crash their car trying to escape. The police arrest everyone.

Parker’s excitement at proving he was right about George comes crashing down when he realizes that his mother is also a drug trafficker and even though she’s going to testify against George and the rest of the gang, she’s probably still going to go to jail.

Sign It Was Written In 1990 Department: Parker is suspicious of the family’s new status symbols:

“How come we have a huge TV and a VCR and a microwave, not to mention the brand-new clothes Pam’s wearing all of a sudden?”

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Secrets Of The Shopping Mall By Richard Peck

Paradise Park takes them in- in more ways than one.

secrets of the shopping mall

Hiding out at the library too academic? Richard Peck takes a tip from George Romero and suggests an alternative!

The Plot: Scrappy 8th graders Teresa and Barnie attract the unwanted attention of the King Kobra street gang at their decrepit and dystopian Manhattan public school (Teresa reports that she’s not even sure which P.S. she is attending since the name has permanently been graffiti’d over with RATSO LUV CHARLEEN); when the new friends discover that they’re both practically orphans (Teresa lives with a mostly-absentee aunt, Barney in a succession of foster homes), they decide that they have nothing to lose by seeing how far they can get on a $2.00 bus fare. Continue reading

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HELP! I’m A Prisoner In The Library! By Eth Clifford

They didn’t mean to spend the night in the library!

Help! I'm a Prisoner in the Library!

Sure, suuuuure you didn’t…

The Plot: It’s hard to beat Eth Clifford’s (AKA Ethel Clifford Rosenberg) set-up for childhood wish fulfillment: tweenage Mary Rose and Jo-Beth Onetree are entrusted to the care of their absent-minded father to drive them from Fort Wayne to Indianapolis to stay with their Aunt on the eve of the birth of their new sibling. Despite sensible Mary Rose’s warnings that the gas gauge is getting low, Doofus Dad insists that he can coast for miles on fumes. When the car sputters to a stop in a ritzy neighborhood, he takes the gas can (one gets the feeling Mr. Onetree is often in this predicament) and hikes off to the nearest service station. 7 year old Jo-Beth immediately announces that she has to use the bathroom and it is an EMERGENCY. Mary Rose notices the nearby children’s library and decides it’s their best bet. Continue reading

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Jay’s Journal By Anonymous

Helplessly fascinated, he plunged into a world of Ouija boards and witchcraft, animal sacrifices and Satanism… into a black abyss from which there seemed no escape.

Jays Journal

Man, some days you just hit the jackpot when it comes to the Teen Scare Genre.

Background:  This is the sophomore outing from Mormon youth counselor Beatrice Sparks, who “discovered” and published the “diary” of the “anonymous teenager” as Go Ask Alice in 1971. Continue reading

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The Lonely Trip Back By Florrie Fisher

If you’ve ever wondered what life on the needle is like, ask a white, middle-class, middle-aged lady named Florrie Fisher- she’ll tell you more than you’re prepared to know!

The Lonely Trip Back

Florrie Fisher’s The Lonely Trip Back graphically details a case of living fast without dying young, describing 25 years of heroin addiction, prostitution and innumerable jail sentences. While this kind of memoir is nearly impossible to fact-check (and Fisher admits in the first chapter that she’s a born con artist) the utterly harrowing anecdotes fall into both the “too crazy to be true” and “too crazy to have been made up” categories Continue reading

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Don’t Hurt Laurie! By Willo Davis Roberts

Laurie’s been keeping a secret for as long as she can remember, a secret that she’s afraid to tell anyone else…

Don't Hurt Laurie!

Willo Davis Roberts was one of the more prolific writers toiling away in the YA/Middle Reader vineyards of the 1970s and 80s; best known for her thrillers (The View From the Cherry Tree, The Girl With Silver Eyes) she also wrote YA romances (3 titles in the Sunfire series) and social-problem books such as this one. Continue reading

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Kisses For Sale By Judith Enderle

She’s giving up boys forever… again!

Kisses for Sale

Good old Wildfire, always good for a Valentine’s Day-themed title, right?

The Plot:  Actually, this is not up to the imprint’s usual level of competent writing-meets-wacky-cover. In fact, there is so little going on in this story that whole chapters are padded out with things like descriptions of sorting magic markers in order to make it to 156 pages. Continue reading

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