Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls seemed like a good read-aloud to end up our summer break. This was a new-to-me novel, despite having loved and read (and re-read) Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows as a kid. The only thing I knew about this story was what I remember a library patron–a homeschooling mom, if my memory serves me correctly–telling me about it twenty years ago when I worked as a public library aide. This was an easy book for me to read aloud–the backwoods Oklahoman cadences and dialect of Jay Berry and his family might’ve sounded a wee bit too southern, but I didn’t stumble over his words much. 🙂
Every one of us, even down to our four year old DLM, was captivated by the story of Jay Berry and his quest to catch a passel of monkeys that have escaped from a circus train. We loved his relationship with his grandpa and his devotion to his tightly knit family, including his crippled twin sister, Daisy. I loved the fact that at fourteen, Jay Berry is still pretty wide-eyed and innocent, certainly not the jaded teen we’ve come to expect in the novel of today. This story is full to bursting with humor; almost every interaction Jay Berry has with this troupe of monkeys and their ring-leader, a chimpanzee named Jimbo, is hilarious, at least to the reader. (Jay Berry doesn’t find them too funny since he’s counting on catching the monkeys for the reward money which will enable him to buy his much-longed for .22 rifle and pony.) He and Grandpa work hard and come up with all sorts of schemes to trap these monkeys, but they’re no match for the wily Jimbo. Mother Nature helps Jay Berry out and he does end up with his prize money, but the story doesn’t end there. Rawls wraps up this tale with a very heartwarming and satisfying conclusion.
Yes, we enjoyed this one a lot, though it’s not without its flaws. The resolution of the monkey story seems like the natural end of the tale, so the real ending seems almost like an appendix to the monkey tale. Fans of Where the Red Fern Grows already know how beautifully Rawls captures the relationship between a boy and his dog(s), and in this tale, Jay Berry’s relationship with his hound dog Rowdy almost upstages the main story. (I shared my favorite part in the whole book for this week’s Wednesdays with Words post. Check it out if you want to get a taste of Rawls’ style.) This isn’t really a bad thing at all, though it does weaken the plot a bit, in my opinion. There’s also some superstitious mumbo-jumbo about an Old Man of the Mountains who may or may not be Jesus or God and who protects all the little creatures of the mountains. (I just took it as an opportunity to have a little discussion with my children about what the Bible teaches about this and other similar issues. ) These few weaknesses definitely didn’t detract from the enjoyment my children got from this story at all. In fact, after reading this author profile of Wilson Rawls on Jim Trelease’s site, I’m more inclined to overlook the weaknesses and give this one a huge Highly Recommended. (Doubleday, 1976)