The Alex Crow by Andrew Smith
Andrew Smith has another novel that will easily become a hit with teens and YA librarians. The publisher describes it as the interweaving of four stories–that of “of Ariel, a Middle Eastern refugee who lives with an adoptive family in Sunday, West Virginia, . . a schizophrenic bomber, the diaries of a failed arctic expedition from the late nineteenth century, and a depressed, bionic reincarnated crow.” However the reincarnated crow could be any animal and is just a plot device to link the name of the ship in the nineteenth century expedition to the present, so let’s say there are three stories working consistently.
The story of Ariel is the most gripping. He’s a war refugee from an unnamed country. He’s survived the decimation of his community, physical brutality at a refugee camp, and more. He’s found himself in West Virginia, adopted by the Burgess family. He now has a brother, Max, who is the same age–fifteen. As the story opens, they have been shipped off to Camp Merrie-Seymour for Boys. Ostensibly, the camp is for boys who are addicted to technology (cell phones and video games), but they are not addicted; they seem to be going because the camp is free to children of parents who work for the nefarious Merrie-Seymour Research Group. Their dad is a Merrie-Seymour researcher and an oddball. Their mom is more of a prop than a character–a nonentity who functions (in a very unbelievable way) to connect a couple of the storylines. The two boys haven’t been getting along–Max is very nasty to Ariel–and it is hoped that they will bond at the camp.
While the nature of the Merrie-Seymour Research Group and of the camp they run is morally evil, the zaniness of the boys in ‘Jupiter’ cabin provides loads of humor, much of it off-color. Max thinks about very little other than the fact that his opportunities to masturbate have been limited by the sleeping and shower arrangements at the camp. His endless euphemisms for masturbation are really very funny.
The storyline of Lenny is a sad one. I think aspects of his mental illness–he is hearing the voices of Stalin and others telling him what to do–are meant partly to be entertainingly funny and mostly very dark. As an adult reader who has seen mental illness ruin the lives of people I know, I found Lenny’s story only dark, and my sympathy for him made these sections difficult to read. Still, Smith is showing the reader the morally repugnant aspect of unethical research (Lenny is the victim of a bio-implant by the Merrie-Seymour Research Group). So he succeeds spectacularly in this.
The story of the nineteenth-century polar expedition on the ship The Alex Crow is not well integrated into the other storylines although Smith makes an effort to patch it in. It could have been left out and the novel would have stood. It seems to be a ‘darling’ (an idea that is lots of fun, but maybe just doesn’t really belong) that Smith was unwilling to kill off.
High school housekeeping: Smith is a very good writer, and he is willing to be outrageous in a way that is very appealing to teens. I often talk up his books, particularly to reluctant reader boys. I have felt more than once that he doesn’t knit all his threads together. I think this is a shame; I wish he would edit more heavily and create a great book instead of a very good one because he appears to be capable of doing so. As professional reviewers only praise Smith, never pointing out serious plot holes, it’s likely that he doesn’t need to change his work. One of the story pieces that didn’t work well was the behavior of the character Mrs. (MD/PhD/Dr.) Nussbaum, the psychiatrist at Camp Merrie-Seymour for Boys. I don’t want to add a spoiler here, so I’ll just say that she appears to want to hide information but also has already given it out freely. And the way that other Merrie-Seymour folks work to discover what’s up with her is very silly considering how easy it would be to find out. In life, they would already know what, in this fiction, they are seeking.
Mrs. Nussbaum and Mrs. Burgess are the primary female characters in the novel. Both give me pause about recommending the novel to teens. In doing so, am I implying that women are like either of them? Both are one-dimensional. One is a wholly evil sociopath with the typical trait of being nice only when seeking something that benefits the self; the other is a blob of pudding without any real human characteristics. I know Smith has been accused of being a misogynist (a hater of women), and while I don’t come to that conclusion, it does appear that he can’t write female characters with any of the creativity he employs when writing about males. (Maybe he doesn’t know how to have them endlessly discussing masturbation.) Again, if professional reviewers don’t call him on this, there is no reason for it to change. But teen girls may find little to like in the portrayal of their gender.
Note: I’m not big on trigger warnings, but there is a very detailed rape scene in this novel. I think it’s important, and Smith uses it to great effect. So, while it belongs in the novel–caveat if this is too upsetting for you.