By: Ted M. Dunagan
Reviewed by: Tony Crunk
Junebug Books, 2008
One of its back-cover reviewers states that Ted Dunagan’s young adult novel, A Yellow Watermelon, reminds him of To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn. The novel is squarely in Twain territory, but that of Tom Sawyer rather than of Huckleberry Finn. By the same token, it only comes within shouting distance of Harper Lee territory. That is, it is an engaging and well-told adventure story, but its seeming intention to explore issues of race and racism falls a bit short of Lee.
The novel is set in 1948 in rural southern Alabama. And one of its greater joys is the lush descriptive detail with which it captures the visceral feel of this time and place. The protagonist, eleven-year-old Ted Dillon, is whiling away the last weeks of summer vacation delivering Grit newspapers and poking about the woods and back-roads around his home. In short order, he stumbles into several significant discoveries: Jake, a newly arrived black man living and working at the local sawmill; a damaging secret about the evil Old Man Cliff Creel, the local land baron; and the Robinsons, a black family being harassed by the same Mr. Creel, who has greedy eyes on the bountiful timber stand they own.
A plucky chap, Ted is mature enough to know that evil is indeed afoot and to be unswerving in his determination to do something about it, but he is too young to appreciate the dangers of meddling in such affairs. Together with his new black friend and side-kick, Poudlum Robinson, he hatches a plot that will save the Robinsons’ land, deliver Old Man Creel his come-uppance, and gain freedom for the kindly Jake, who, as it turns out, is an escaped convict.
The novel’s plot—and Dunagan’s—is daring, intricate, suspenseful, and executed with style and vigor. Thus, the adventure story, and it is a very satisfying one.
But the book’s treatment of larger social themes, especially those involving race, is somewhat flat. Though one or two minor incidents threaten to turn nasty on this account, race seems only peripheral and incidental to the proceedings. For example, Old Man Creel’s animosity toward the Robinsons seems driven solely by greed, and not by any racist propensities, and Jake could have easily been white, without significantly changing the story.
Accordingly, this book is probably better suited for younger readers, who will be entranced by its yarn of derring-do. Even they, though, will probably have already encountered more challenging and nuanced treatments of its broader themes. Nov 2008
Tony Crunk, a teaching writer in the Writing Our Stories program, lives in Birmingham.