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