The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick is one-quarter Civil War story and three-quarters gollywhopper, as told by one Homer P. Figg. Homer must be close kin to Huckleberry Finn, for he gets into and out of as many scrapes as Huck Finn, and with the same devil-may-care attitude. Of course, just like Huck Finn, he has a pretty big heart, too. In fact, it’s Homer’s heart that gets him into all the scrapes. Homer’s big brother, Harold, has been conscripted illegally into the Union army by their mean-as-a-snake uncle (whose name just happens to be Squinton Leach, a name which Mark Twain himself would’ve been happy to have coined). What’s Homer to do, then, but to run away from Uncle Squint and find Harold and rescue him from the army? Over the course of this story, Homer meets an Underground Railroad operative, a couple of professional thieves, and a Confederate spy posing as a medicine show man. He gains a bird’s eye view of the Battle of Gettysburg when he inadvertently sets sail in a hot air balloon. He briefly ends up as a Confederate prisoner of war, all before being reunited with his brother, but not before they survive a day of Gettysburg together. To say that all of this couldn’t happen to one twelve year old boy is an understatement, but that’s the fun part of this tale–it’s Homer’s “mostly true” adventures, after all.
One thing that makes this story Newbery worthy (it won an honor in 2010) is the snap-crackle-pop writing. Philbrick can turn a phrase and write a description that you won’t soon forget:
. . .old Squint was the hardest man in Somerset County. A man so mean he squeezed the good out of the Holy Bible and beat us with it, and swore that God Himself had inflicted me and Harold on him, like he was Job and we was Boils and Pestilence. (2)
Mr. Webster B. Willow don’t look much older than my brother, Harold. The fine blond hair on his narrow chin hasn’t decided if it wants to be a beard, and his eyes are so close together it looks like he’s studying his nose or trying to see around it. (78)
The other thing that makes this story Newbery-worthy is how well Philbrick dances along the edge of revealing the horrors of war, even in the midst of such a fantastical tale, without going overboard for young readers. Everything isn’t left to the imagination in this story, but most of it is. In other words, he doesn’t glorify or oversimplify war, but he makes it so that upper-elementary aged students reading this story will get the idea that war is cruel and ugly without really knowing too many of the details of why. I appreciate that a lot, and the fact that even though Homer comes out the hero in the end, even he isn’t sure why he acts heroically. He just does it. That’s all. Sort of like Huck Finn.
If you like adventures that are full of memorable characters in a story that’s full of heart, you’ll like this one. (Scholastic, 2009)