Regular readers here know I almost never write a negative book review, mostly because if I truly don’t like a book, I probably won’t finish it. Life’s too short. What I have to say about Fourmile by Watt Key isn’t so much negative as it is confused. I’m confused by why it was chosen as a middle grade fiction finalist for the 2012 Cybils Award.
Fourmile is the story of twelve year old Foster of rural south Alabama. Foster lives alone with his mother on their deteriorating farm, and he is lost in his grief over his father’s untimely death the year before. Linda, Foster’s mom, is making attempts to move on with her life, mostly by receiving the attentions of a very uncouth, obscene, and brutish suitor named Dax. Foster, and more importantly, his dog, Joe, hate Dax. Into this dismal scenario walks a mysterious stranger named Gary. He first enters their lives to simply ask for a drink of water to see him further on his journey to Texas, but thanks to a storm, he ends up staying in their barn. Foster is taken with him from the very beginning, and he convinces his mom that Gary will make a great jack-of-all-trades to help them get their place salable for their upcoming move to Montgomery. After this, Foster’s life begins to both come back together and to unravel simultaneously. He now has a seemingly respectable man in his life again, and that’s something he has sorely missed since his father’s death. However, Dax isn’t happy about the situation at all, and he isn’t one to just lie down and take having his woman “stolen” from him like that. This story is extremely violent, with lots of fighting and guns, and it contains a lot of profanity.
Fourmile is a coming-of-age story, which is a kind I particularly like, and it is sad and touching and probably even true-to-life, but it’s just not the kind of thing I usually spend my time on. Now, I get that it’s a very exciting and fast read–I read it in about twenty-four hours, which is fast for me, with all the other things that require my time and attention–and no one could deny the excitement level of it, with all of Gary’s furtive glances over his shoulder, Dax’s drinking and threats, and the fighting. The end is simply a conflagration of violence. I realize that I’m really not the intended audience for the book; that would be, I assume, middle grade boys. I also realize that (perhaps?) boys of this age are more interested in violence than I am, and probably have an assumed higher tolerance for it. I just can’t imagine this book being one I’d happily hand off to my eleven year old. I believe that what we feed our brains and souls on matters, and while it’s too early to say what our
own little boys might or might not be interested in at the ripe old age of twelve, I hope I don’t give into the culture of violence and encourage them to feed their souls on such as this. Added to the fact that this story is extremely violent is the fact that in tone it reads much more like an adult story to me. It feels like a story Foster is telling from the vantage point of adulthood, and though there’s nothing in the story to actually indicate that, it has that feel to it to me. Actually, this book made me reach way back into my memory for a book that I read as required reading as a freshman in high school: Shane by Jack Schaeffer. I don’t recall Shane being nearly as violent (and indeed, I think the violence in Shane is implied, but I’m going on a 20+ year old memory here). However, the idea that this mysterious stranger comes in to fill the role of a father is there. It’s interesting, and like I said already, probably true-to-life, but I can do without all the gratuitous violence. I can’t imagine why a preteen would need to read it.
I’m a bit disappointed, honestly, because Watt Key is an Alabama author, and I’m always ready to champion someone from my state. I’m not criticizing his writing ability, but rather the fact that this book is marketed to children. I’m not in favor of censorship, but I am in favor of using wisdom and discretion when it comes to what our children read. For that reason, I cannot recommend this book for its intended audience. (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2012)