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Young Sleuths Hot on the Trail of Their Own Identities



All it takes is a book cover in a certain shade of yellow, or the tangy flavor of red Fruit Stripe, to transform me into a 9-year-old lying on the couch with a tower of Nancy Drew mysteries and a mouth full of gum. I can still feel that frantic need to learn who had stolen the plans, or hidden the jewels, or switched the trunks on the cruise ship. Now, though, I realize the central mystery was Nancy herself. The amateur sleuth was brave, clever and beautiful. But who was she, really? Even if you obsessed over reading every book in the series, as I did, you’d never learn much more about her. Developing the characters was never the point.

Four new middle grade mysteries take the opposite approach. Their intricate plots keep you guessing, for sure, but these stories also fulfill the promise of the best novels aimed at young readers: to shed light on the deeper mysteries of identity and self.

Take, for instance, Katryn Bury’s debut, “Drew Leclair Gets a Clue.” The seventh grader Drew Leclair may be named after Nancy Drew, but she has a skill set Nancy could only dream of. She’s grown up on true-crime stories, and her favorite book, “In the Shadow of a Killer,” is a primer on criminal profiling. When it turns out that a troll has taken over the unofficial student-run Instagram account at her school — and Drew herself is the target of the troll’s anonymous posts — she uses her profiling toolbox to figure out who’s behind the hack. Meanwhile, Drew is also dealing with a host of other worries, from her mother’s affair with her school counselor (with whom she’s left the family to go live in a yurt in Kauai) to the way her best friend, a boy, is suddenly interested in kissing.

The mystery comes to a satisfying conclusion — Drew is able to expose the culture of bullying at her school — but the story really shines when she begins to process the feelings she’s been avoiding. Does she want her mother to come back or not? Does she like boys or girls? Does she trust her friends? Drew digs deep and talks everything through.

Note the delightful relationship she has with her dad. Nancy Drew’s father, in all his wisdom, never thought to plan “Murder and Mayhem” movie nights for his titian-haired daughter.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and it can be hard to keep track of its many strands, but the cast of characters (and the community in which they live) is richly imagined.

Felix Fine, the sixth-grade protagonist of “Nothing Is Little,” by Carmella Van Vleet, is also familiar with adult crime-solving tactics. He has just joined the Forensic Science Club, where he’s acquiring the skills necessary to solve a series of “staged crimes” at his middle school. With every fingerprint he analyzes and witness he interviews, Felix hopes he will also get closer to solving another mystery: locating his birth dad.

Growth hormone deficiency has left Felix smaller than some 8-year-olds, and he’s starting daily shots to help him grow the way he’s supposed to. Felix doesn’t mind being short — he even has a collection of funny T-shirts that say things like “No, I’m not an elf.” When he discovers that his father, too, was short, it’s all the evidence he needs to launch a full investigation.

Felix’s model detective is Sherlock Holmes — he’s thrilled when another character nicknames him “Shortlock Holmes” — and the book’s title comes from a Holmes quote: “To a great mind, nothing is little.” Like Drew Leclair’s story, though, Felix’s is as internal as it is external. As he follows clues to his father’s identity, he learns about the person and friend he himself is beginning to be (while making some age-appropriate blunders).

His maturity is tested in one over-the-top scene that strains believability but also puts the rest of his worries in perspective. Felix’s problems are manageable. He may not get exactly what he wants by the end, but he gets more than he bargained for.

Chester Keene, the titular hero of Kekla Magoon’s “Chester Keene Cracks the Code,” is also a sixth grader with an absent dad. Unlike Felix, however, Chester knows the reason his father is missing: He’s a spy on a secret mission. And Chester is in training to be just like him. “Keen observation skills are a hallmark of effective spycraft,” Chester says. “You have to know everything, see everything. … Information is power. A small detail can tell an entire story.” Observing suits Chester just fine, as he prefers a life on the margins of middle school, shaped by his many rituals.

When a ferocious bully fixates on Chester, he emails his dad for help. His dad never calls or visits — he never breaks his cover — but he sends thoughtful responses full of advice. Then, out of nowhere, he sends a task, a puzzle Chester must solve with the help of a free-spirited girl named Skye. The purpose is unclear, but Chester trusts his father’s plan.

Chester is a sensitive, sympathetic character whom you root for from the first page. When Skye bursts into the school cafeteria, though, it’s as if Chester is leaving black and white for Technicolor. Together, these characters crackle — I can’t remember the last time I read such perfect dialogue.

The puzzle is clever. While it puts Chester and Skye in the way of some criminals, there’s also another scheme unfolding, and it’s a surprise. Readers might guess the secret identity of Chester’s dad, but suspense builds as we wait for it to dawn on Chester.

“Chester Keene Breaks the Code” delivers a truly fresh mystery — along with a heist, some heartbreak, some unforgettable characters and plenty of laser tag.

One of these novels is not quite like the others. “Wretched Waterpark,” the first book in the Sinister Summer series by Kiersten White, is wickedly weird. The Sinister-Winterbottom siblings have been packed off to their Aunt Saffronia for the summer, although none of them can quite remember how they got to her house. Let’s just say she’s not the warm and cozy kind of aunt. “How often would you say you need to eat?” she asks. “If I set out some food in the morning, will that be enough?” — and things only get worse from there. She leaves them at a water park and tells them a week there should be enough time to find something that has been lost. Exactly what it is or how they are supposed to find it are questions for the 12-year-old twins and their 16-year-old sister — who is always on her phone — to explore.

Fathoms of Fun has a gothic theme, with prices in Roman numerals and staff in lace collars. The water slides shoot out of gargoyles on a stone tower, and the food at the snack bar is unspeakable: jellied eel and pickled oysters, followed by a Victorian mince pie. After some adventures, however, the kids discover their mission, and the caper rolls along to its Scooby Doo-style conclusion. In their own way, the Sinister-Winterbottoms, too, are uncovering family secrets.

The mystery here is almost secondary to the humor, which is very broad — kids may crack up sooner than this reviewer did. But the darkly comic tone will appeal to anyone who loved “A Series of Unfortunate Events.”

I must admit I had a visceral reaction to White’s descriptions of Fathoms of Fun. They made me long for dazzling blue water, scorching pavement, stacks of striped towels and the scent of fried dough. If that’s not a recommendation for a summer read, I don’t know what is.

Kate Egan’s first middle grade novel, “Golden Ticket,” was published in June.

DREW LECLAIR GETS A CLUE, by Katryn Bury | 288 pp. | Clarion | $16.99 | Ages 8 to 12
NOTHING IS LITTLE, by Carmella Van Vleet | 224 pp. | Holiday House | $18.99 | Ages 8 to 12
CHESTER KEENE CRACKS THE CODE, by Kekla Magoon | 304 pp. | Wendy Lamb | $16.99 | Ages 8 to 12
WRETCHED WATERPARK (Sinister Summer, Book 1), by Kiersten White | 256 pp. | Delacorte | $16.99 | Ages 8 to 12


A Family Tree as Racially Mixed as the America It Sprang From



BENJAMIN BANNEKER AND US: Eleven Generations of an American Family, by Rachel Jamison Webster with Edith Lee Harris, Robert Lett, Gwen Marable and Edwin Lee

In 1753, Benjamin Banneker, a free Black farmer in Baltimore County, Md., carved a clock almost entirely out of wood. According to most sources, he based his design on a pocket watch he had borrowed from a family friend and disassembled; he had never seen a larger clock up close. Decades later, after Banneker had become famous for his best-selling almanacs, visitors reported the clock still hung in his family’s cabin, faithfully striking the hour.

Wood instruments can last for centuries, and Banneker’s clock would probably have survived to be displayed in the Smithsonian had it not been destroyed, along with nearly all of Banneker’s papers and other possessions, in a suspicious fire that leveled his home on the day of his funeral in 1806. That fire all but destroyed our chances of assembling any definite information about Banneker’s personal and intellectual history, shrinking what scholars call his “archive” almost to the point of disappearance.

White supremacy is good at covering its tracks. This is the point at which Rachel Jamison Webster’s “Benjamin Banneker and Us” begins: when she learns about a cousin’s commercial genetic test and some genealogical research revealing that her family has an illustrious Black ancestor. Sometime in the 19th century, her grandfather’s great-grandmother Susan Lett, previously listed in the census as “mulatto,” had chosen to pass as white. While Webster’s family left behind its mixed-race heritage and “entered the fiction of whiteness,” she discovers living Black relatives who have been keeping alive the memory of the Banneker and Lett families for generations.

It’s an awkward situation, to say the least, and to Webster’s credit, she leans into the awkwardness. Her excellent and thought-provoking book is on every level about unknowing rather than knowing — about pondering the mysteries of Banneker, who is often described as one of the first African American scientists, and the legacy of 11 generations of a multiracial American family that only now is coming into view.

One strand of Webster’s narrative describes how she built new relationships with her far-flung Black relatives, mostly over Zoom and phone calls, mostly during the pandemic, overcoming their understandable wariness and open hostility as they tried to tease out whether she was an interloper or an opportunist. The rest of the story narrates Banneker’s life, and those of his parents and grandparents, using the technique of speculative nonfiction: taking the bits of (sometimes contradictory) information from the historical record and fleshing them out with imagined details, thoughts and feelings. At its best — as practiced by writers like Maxine Hong Kingston or Saidiya Hartman — speculative nonfiction operates at an uneasy boundary with historical fiction: It uses novelistic techniques to recreate lives that lie outside the conventional historical record. It’s a kind of imaginative justice.

The materials Webster has to work with, scant as they are, are potent and disturbing. Benjamin Banneker’s maternal grandparents, most scholars believe, were Molly Welsh, a former indentured servant from England, and Bana’ka, a Wolof man from Senegambia whom Molly may have purchased in Maryland around 1690, after completing her indenture and becoming a tobacco farmer. Banneker’s father, Robert, was a former enslaved African from the Guinea region. No one knows for sure the nature of Molly and Bana’ka’s relationship, just that they had several children, legally identified as “mulattoes,” who may have become free after Molly’s death.

Moreover, Webster tells us, we can only guess at how much of Bana’ka and Robert’s West African heritage — how much memory and knowledge — was kept alive in their family and passed down to Benjamin. Some West African cultures possess long traditions of cosmological and astronomical observation: Could this explain why Benjamin Banneker, apparently from a very young age, spent nights outside, observing and tracking stars?

In many ways the story of Banneker and his father and grandfather is what the scholar Britt Rusert calls “fugitive science.” Historians of early America know that many enslaved and free Africans and their descendants practiced empirical research, experimentation and innovation, sometimes using knowledge and materials brought from Africa; the successful cultivation of rice in pre-Revolution Georgia and South Carolina, for example, is believed to have owed much to African expertise. The silencing and erasure of early Black scientists wasn’t simply a matter of whites not wanting to share credit, or profits; it was an ideological effort to deny that Africans were capable of rational thought or intellectual inquiry of any kind. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in “Notes on the State of Virginia,” “Never yet could I find that a Black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration.”

Because Banneker wrote directly to Jefferson to challenge his denigration of Black intelligence, he’s usually considered a beacon of progress and an early advocate for civil rights. For the most part, that’s how Webster describes him: as a saintly, otherworldly genius, rational and dispassionate, even as unidentified gunmen — presumably disgruntled whites — took potshots at his cabin.

But there’s another side to his personality, which Webster only hints at: the early life he led as part of a mixed-race, African English family, outside the strictures of Jeffersonian racial supremacy. I wanted her to keep pushing back into that world, into the sources of his creative, resistant spirit. But that’s precisely the point of this book: There is much more to Banneker’s story than the records reveal, and every generation has to reckon with it, reassess it and — if necessary — reinvent it.

Jess Row’s novel “The New Earth” will be published this month. His previous books include “Your Face in Mine” and “White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination.”

BENJAMIN BANNEKER AND US: Eleven Generations of an American Family | By Rachel Jamison Webster with Edith Lee Harris, Robert Lett, Gwen Marable and Edwin Lee | 351 pp. | Henry Holt & Company | $28.99

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One Man’s Foray Into the Heartland of the Far Right



THE UNDERTOW: Scenes From a Slow Civil War, by Jeff Sharlet

The premise of “The Undertow,” Jeff Sharlet’s anguished new book of reportage, is that the United States is “coming apart.” The disintegration is political. It involves the rise of the autocratically inclined Donald Trump; the attempt by members of the Republican Party to overthrow the election of Joe Biden in January 2021; and, during the Biden presidency, the overturning by the Supreme Court of Roe v Wade.

The extremist maneuvering of right-wing officials has, if anything, only intensified. In the past few weeks, Republican legislators have introduced bills that provide, in effect, for the abolition of the Democratic Party in Florida and the putting to death of women who have abortions in South Carolina. The Supreme Court has requested further briefs in a case about the “independent state legislature theory,” a spurious legal-political doctrine that, if adopted as law, would enable (gerrymandered) Republican legislatures to effectively terminate democratic federal elections in their states. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who sits on the House’s Homeland Security Committee, has floated the idea of a “national divorce” along red state and blue state lines. Sharlet’s premise would seem to be valid.

Not so long ago, Sharlet admits, he declined to characterize the threat to the Republic as “fascism.” Yet,

one by one in recent years, objections to describing militant Trumpism as fascist have fallen away. In addition to “the personality” of Trump, the movement his presidency quickened now cultivates paramilitaries and glorifies violence as a means of purification, thrives on othering its enemies, declares itself persecuted for “Whiteness,” diagnoses the nation as decadent and embraces the revisionist myth of a MAGA past.

But what explains this fascism’s grip on millions of ordinary Americans? It’s an important inquiry, not least because the rise of antidemocratic right-wing fanaticism in America has no good precedent. The fascisms of Europe and postcolonial states arose in response to socioeconomic collapse and dire poverty. The American version, by contrast, flourishes in a society that’s very rich by historical and global standards. Its political party — the G.O.P. — enjoys deeply entrenched power, and its supporters and corporate allies are hardly victims of the status quo. Nonmaterial factors — culture, race, geography, ideology — must be at work. What might these factors be? What is, to adapt Sharlet’s terminology, “the theology” of the cause?

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Unlikely Allies, They Spread the Gospel of Tree-Hugging



GUARDIANS OF THE VALLEY: John Muir and the Friendship That Saved Yosemite, by Dean King

It’s a brave thing, to write about John Muir.

First, you run the risk of contrasting your own writing with his, and whose can compare? Muir shaped his words into piercing, lyrical prose about everything from wildflower meadows to pack burros to San Francisco. More than a century later, his writing is still transporting: When he arrived in California, after leaving his home and timber mill work in Wisconsin, Muir wrote that his walk across the Yosemite Valley was “all one sea of golden and purple bloom, so deep and dense that in walking through it you would press more than a hundred flowers at every step.”

Thankfully, Dean King’s poetry is a match for Muir’s: “He saw God in the fragmentation of the stream and in rays of the sun passing through to make vivid rainbow beads,” he writes of Muir. “He saw God in the rebirth of the stream suddenly expelled from earth, as death and a new life, a new journey, were simultaneously manifest.”

It’s also bold to take on the subject of Muir because so much has already been published; how much more can be said about the exploits and advocacy of America’s most revered conservationist? But “Guardians of the Valley” adds a compelling perspective: an examination of Muir’s relationship and friendship with the editor Robert Underwood Johnson, who brought Muir’s work to the masses.

As such, this is also a book about the power of storytelling. Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Muir wrote about the Yosemite Valley and Johnson delivered that work to the (mostly Eastern, urban) readers of his magazine, Century. It is Johnson, King writes, who with Muir “ignited a quarter-century of legislation and environmental activism that would change the shape of the nation and stewardship of nature everywhere.”

King frames Johnson and Muir’s relationship as “unlikely” — Johnson was an “urbane” Manhattan-dweller, from a well-connected family, albeit socially awkward and with a “nervous stomach.” Muir, although he had many friends, preferred solitude in the woods, ate an almost comically austere diet and hated the city. When Johnson joined Century (previously Scribner’s Monthly), he was tasked with persuading Ulysses S. Grant to write for the magazine (which he did), and staying “on top of John Muir.”

Their relationship provides a compelling narrative that guides the reader through decades of what might otherwise have read as dense statecraft and legislative history. Instead, King deftly contrasts Johnson’s lobbying with Muir’s exploits. We tag along with Muir to timber mills and on hikes to backwoods huts; we stand with Johnson as Chicago burns in 1871. We ford streams with Muir as he herds sheep; write letters to Muir from a New York City magazine office.

We encounter Muir as a dashing explorer and scientific investigator, hammering stakes into the Nisqually Glacier and weathering storms on Mount Shasta. But when Johnson travels west to develop a special issue of Century about the California Gold Rush, Muir is thrust into his editor’s world, starting with his first meeting with Johnson at an ornate San Francisco hotel. Muir, who had been writing regularly for publications like The Oakland Ledger, The San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin and even The San Francisco Real Estate Circular, would in turn take Johnson on an excursion into the Yosemite Valley. The stories Muir told along the way led Johnson to adopt preservation of the valley as his cause.

Johnson returned to New York and started lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill. And he began to pester Muir for more articles, which he used as a tool to influence politicians to establish a national park around Yosemite. Muir was a procrastinator who had to be reminded numerous times to submit his essays, letters and maps. Based on Muir’s eloquent writing, other Eastern journalists at larger publications jumped on board to advocate the valley’s preservation. Johnson had swiftly mastered the manipulation of legislation and power, in which the media played a large part.

King’s book adds much-needed perspective on the power of the press in lobbying for conservation. Journalism became the issue’s battleground, with California newspapers (some owned by timber magnates) arguing against Muir’s assertions and Johnson lobbying for government intervention. An East-West divide was stoked in the pages of these newspapers — and would not fade with the formal recognition of Yosemite National Park in 1890.

Indeed, King explains that preserving Muir and Johnson’s success required constant vigilance. We follow as Johnson and Muir become founding members of the Sierra Club, whose first campaign was in response to ranchers who lived around the park, lobbying to redraw the park’s boundaries to increase lumber, mining and grazing revenues. A bill in support of the locals was introduced by a California congressman and Johnson would, according to King, “work the press,” placing stories to successfully oppose the shrinking of the park. “You of course know that this whole policy has grown out of your three articles printed in the Century, which in turn grew out of our talk by the campfire in the upper Tuolomne,” Johnson wrote to Muir.

The battles continued as the Sierra Club fought to protect California’s redwoods. King follows Muir and Johnson’s work in protest of the Hetch Hetchy dam outside San Francisco, which would come to be known as one of the country’s first environmental controversies. City officials wrote editorials suggesting that idealistic nature lovers would negatively impact daily life for city residents — not Eastern tourists. The Sierra Club, for its part, released fliers that made liberal use of all-caps; Johnson decried the “rape of Hetchy” — before being fired for his activism.

These battles are far from over. More than a century later, King argues that, now firmly in the climate crisis, we can take motivation and strength from Muir’s writing and activism. Followers of conservation politics will note that there has been fierce debate surrounding Muir’s legacy in recent years. In 2020, the Sierra Club called out his racist statements and acknowledged their own troubled history of bias. King refers to these larger discussions, pointing out that while Muir appeared to be reverent and respectful of Native American knowledge of the land, he rarely acknowledged the country’s violent displacement of Indigenous peoples.

We see through this book the immense power of language to sway, the ability for selectively chosen words to convey awe and power, resentment and raw anger, to change the minds of lawmakers and tourists alike. To effectively draw strength from Muir’s writing, as King suggests we do, we might reconsider which stories are told around the campfire.

Lyndsie Bourgon is the author of “Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods.”

GUARDIANS OF THE VALLEY: John Muir and the Friendship That Saved Yosemite | By Dean King | Illustrated | 437 pp. | Scribner | $30

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