"Is this Heaven. No, it's Iowa."
The above quote is not from the novel THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK. It's from the movie The Field of Dreams. It's a quote Iowans know very well. For 29 years I've called Iowa home. I love my state. There's so much more to Iowa than pigs and cornfields and I am thankful for our understated way of life. However, it is always a little exciting when Iowa gets some play. I can probably count on my own two hands, the number of movies or books I've seen or read that feature Iowa as a prominent setting. Thanks to the rave reviews online and intriguing plot description, THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK is a book I probably would have read anyway, but in discovering that it takes place in the fictional town of Hazelwood, Iowa, a bias was formed before I even opened to the first page! I just hoped author Kelly Barnhill (who lives in Minnesota) would do us proud.
Iowa is anything but Heaven for Jack. He is not excited about moving from San Francisco, CA to Hazelwood, IA to live with his aunt and uncle, and who could blame him? But Jack has no choice. His parents are splitting up and he and his younger brother Baxter are forced to stay with relatives while the mess gets figured out. From the first moment he arrives in Hazelwood, he can feel the electricity in the air. Things seem familiar to Jack, yet he knows he's never been to Hazelwood. The people of Hazelwood know Jack. Some respect him, some fear him. All this attention is foreign to Jack, who is used to being treated as if he's invisible. Even his family has always treated him as if he was invisible. Something strange appears to be brewing in Hazelwood, IA and soon, Jack realizes he may be at the center of it all.
THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK is a surprisingly dark novel. It sneaks up on you. I couldn't help but feel sad as soon as I finished it, and not sad that it was over. Sad for the characters involved. The inside jacket flap of the book describes it as "a tale of magic, friendship, and sacrifice. It's about things broken and things put back together. Above all, it's about finding a place to fit in." The description could not be more on the mark. While reading, I couldn't possibly figure out how all these deeper themes were going to come to fruition, but they eventually did and not a single plot thread was left dangling (which is rather impressive given the amount of questions one will generate while reading this).
Jack has always felt invisible with his family in California. For as long as he can remember, no one has ever paid attention to him. It takes moving to Iowa for him to finally realize just how lonely he truly was in California. He doesn't know how to react to a bully in town because he's not used to the attention. And when a friendship is formed with a girl named Wendy, he suddenly understands what has been missing in his life. I liked the bond that was formed between the child characters, Jack, Wendy, her twin brother Frankie (who is physically scarred from a mysterious disappearance earlier in his life), and Anders. It seems as if these characters know that there is more in store for Jack, more that he has yet to realize, and so they grow protective of him.
Which makes the ending of this story so incredibly sad to me. Jack finally discovers where it is he belongs, and sacrifices plenty to return to that place, but I get the feeling it's not necessarily a decision Jack is happy about. I think he finally knows where he belongs, but he wants to belong somewhere else. He wants to belong with Wendy, and Frankie, and Anders. And Clive and Mabel. I don't get the feeling that Jack wants to be where he is in the end of the book. On top of it all, Wendy has lost a good friend and the outcome in general is very gloomy. I'm not sure what kind of children are going to stick this book out, trudge through the confusion, and be satisfied in the end.
Part of the problem may be that Barnhill (while showing incredible talent) is somewhat sloppy and inconsistent in her description of the magic at work in this story. For instance, these children are able to sneak around right under the nose of these magical beings, and go most of the novel undetected. That rang false to me because these same magical beings are incredibly powerful and all-knowing. How would they not be able to see, and know about, every single move made by the kids? If the magic here was more concrete, more believable (I know, it's still magic though!), if the reader was able to understand the magic better, maybe they would have at least understood Jack's decision in the end. As it is, I think most people will just feel bad for his character.
It's a challenging read. I literally spent 3/4 of the book in total and utter confusion. It wasn't because I was missing things. It was because Barnhill wants you to be confused. She waits to show her cards until near the end. There's enough leading up to keep interest, but all is not revealed until very late. This is incredibly risky when writing a children's book because a child's stamina is not quite what an adult reader's may be. Luckily, Barnhill hooked me on her writing and her mystery. I'm not sure younger readers would stay the course though.
All in all, I was fully engaged in THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK and would recommend it to anyone willing. It's a complicated, heavy story, definitely not for everyone. But it's mystery and style appealed to me personally.
Final Grade: B