Sunday, September 23, 2012

Book Review: Pull Out All the Stops! (2010) by Geraldine McCaughrean

I've read two of McCaughrean's YA novels in the past year, (Not the End of the World and The Death Defying Pepper Roux), and it's astonishing to think that a writer this good is, by and large, unknown on this side of the Atlantic. The fact that she mostly writes for the young adult market should have no bearing on how she's perceived as a writer. McCaughrean is simply one of the best and most imaginative prose writers I've come across in the last ten years. No contemporary writer I can think of has her facility for creating memorable images and witty observations. This is a writer who sees the world in a new and imaginative way and effortlessly transmits those images to the printed page. This short paragraph from the novel shows off her many strengths:

Twice a year, the Missouri rises. As it drinks down meltwater or tropical summer rain, it loses its head and runs amok. It swells and throbs like the nightmares in Hulbert Sissney's feverish head. Forgetting the maps drawn up by fastidious river pilots, ignoring the dry baked levees, it simply gets up and stretches itself. Overspilling its banks, unpicking its neat embroidery of tributaries—tributaries like the Numchuk River—it spreads out over the landscape, engulfing water meadows, swamps, landing stages and riverside highways. It is an unstoppable surge of chocolate-brown water lumpy with storm litter, staking its claim to everything. And when it has made its point, and withdrawn, it leaves behind flotsam, like a drunkard's tip on the bar: tree stumps, shack roofs, dead cattle, cartwheels. Even boats. 

Not only is the "drunkard's tip" a wonderful simile, it also brilliantly references back to the beginning of the paragraph with the river's "drinking" causing it to run "amok." Someone should put this paragraph on a plaque and stick it beside the Missouri or Mississippi because there's never going to be a better or briefer description of a mighty river in flood. 

Pull Out is the picaresque tale of Cissy Sissney and Kookie Warboys, two 12-year-olds living in Olive Town, Oklahoma in the 1890s. A diptheria epidemic breaks out and Cissy and Kookie are sent to stay with Loucien Crew, their former teacher who is now part of a traveling theatrical troupe. Accompanying the children is Miss March, their present teacher. The troupe, which is called the Bright Lights Theatre Company, is living in a paddle wheel steamer which one of the Missouri River's floods has left high and dry on land. No sooner have the children got to the boat than the Missouri rises again. The kids and the actors are soon floating down the Missouri into all sorts of adventures. 

McCaughrean knows picaresque. In The Death Defying Pepper Roux the title character traveled around France (in virtually the same time period as this novel) having adventures and meeting all kinds of characters. In this book, Cissy and Kookie join a large group of eccentric characters, and as the boat journeys downriver it picks up more characters on top of experiencing various adventures. It's to the author's immense credit that she manages to juggle all these people and adventures in a coherent manner. There's far too much going on in the novel to summarize it adequately, but it's enough to know that it's all wildly entertaining. And, as always, McCaughrean's prose leads the way. Here's one of my favourite lines in the book about a man who's recovering from a close shave with a runaway grain silo:

The idea had come to him in the middle of the night, when a man with a head wound has all his best and worst ideas.

Given the setting and tone of this novel, I don't think it's a coincidence that that sounds like something Mark Twain might have written. And, just for a contrast, here's a lovely description of some pelicans briefly glimpsed at night on the river:

Pelicans loomed white out on the river, drawn by the light, drifting like Chinese lanterns, indistinct and mysterious.

That's poetry, that is. The only reason I'd rate this novel fractionally lower in quality than the previous ones I've read is that McCaughrean shows a tendency, like a lot of English writers who set stories in America, to view everything through a larger-than-life prism. From an English point of view, everything happens in America on a bigger scale and at a greater decibel level than elsewhere, and in this spirit the novel sometimes feels a bit too frenzied, a bit overcaffeinated. One example is that McCaughrean absolutely goes to town on giving some of her characters outlandish names. English writers often seem to give Americans, especially ones from the Old West, improbable  names, which is very much the pot calling the kettle black (say hello, Benedict Cumberbatch), but that hasn't stopped writers from P.G. Wodehouse on down from doing it. 

McCaughrean has written more than 150 books for all ages, as they say, including some adult novels, so it looks like I have a lifetime's supply of great reading ahead of me.

Related posts:

Teen Pulp Fiction  
Book Review: Bloodtide by Melvin Burgess

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