Monday, December 28, 2009

Clifford Hicks’s new Alvin Fernald novel

Clifford B. Hicks. Alvin Fernald’s Incredible Buried Treasure. Cynthiana, KY: Purple House Press, 2009. $17.95.

Alvin Fernald, a brainy, excitable boy with a knack for adventure, is the hero of nine novels published between 1960 and 1986. The second, Alvin’s Secret Code (1963), was the formative book of my childhood. The news that Clifford Hicks, now eighty-nine, has written a tenth Alvin Fernald novel seems to me like news one gets in a dream, though the news came in an e-mail from Mr. Hicks to his many correspondents.

Alvin’s Secret Code seems to have helped inspire this new novel. Here as there, a visitor comes to Riverton, Indiana, with a story from the past. Here as there, a cryptic message points to the location of a Civil War treasure. In Alvin’s Secret Code though, the visitor’s story is contained within a chapter. Here, the past becomes the substance of the novel, in the form of a journal written by Caleb Getme, a (fictional) young man who escaped slavery and went on to live in the White House and later work as a printer. Caleb’s journal is a compelling invention, one that would bring many a young reader into contact with some of the brutality and bravery of the American past. The journal accounts for more than half the novel’s pages, which means that there’s less of Alvin, his family, and his friend Shoie here than a reader might have hoped for. I wondered whether Alvin’s father would still be smoking a pipe in 2009, but Mr. and Mrs. Fernald are nearly invisible. Alvin’s sister Daphne though is an especially bright and lively presence, doing yoga and displaying her knowledge as a dictionary reader. And the novel reveals how Alvin and Shoie met and became best friends, something I don’t recall reading about elsewhere.

What I like most about Alvin Fernald’s Incredible Buried Treasure is its author’s wise refusal to march his characters into the twenty-first century. Alvin’s room has an Inventing Bench, not a computer. No one owns a cellphone. Yet nothing seems to be missing. Mysteries are solved not online but with face-to-face interviews, visits to the local historical society, and kid power. Here's what Professor Liam O’Harra, whose visit sparks the story, says about Alvin, Shoie, and Daphne:

“Your father and several other residents of Riverton have told me you kids know more about the layout of the town and its surroundings than anyone else. You ride your bikes tirelessly around it from one end to the other, day after day.”
The heck with Google Earth. In Riverton, Indiana, kids on bikes still rule. Clifford Hicks thus reinvents both past and present in this novel. I hope that Alvin Fernald’s Incredible Buried Treasure finds its way to Alvin fans both young and nearly young.

Thanks, Rachel and Ben, for such a great gift.

Related posts
Clifford B. Hicks (1920–2010)
Out of the past (On reading Alvin’s Secret Code in adulthood)

comments: 4

Anonymous said...

Now I'll be heading off to my local library to see if they've got any Clifford Hicks in the stacks. I can only hope that at 89 I'll still be producing, well, anything, let alone anything worth reading.

If I might recommend another author who refuses "to march his characters into the twenty-first century," give Trenton Lee Stewart's _Mysterious Benedict Society_ a try. Now, in these books there *are* computers (but not, I think, personal computers), but the children at the heart of the story are smart because they read newspapers and books: real newspapers! real books! By the second book, the bad guys are called "Ten Men" who wear snappy suits and carry briefcases filled with lethal office supplies.

Michael Leddy said...

Lethal office supplies — that sounds like a must-read! Thanks for the recommendation.

Rachel said...

Great review, Dad! Kid power!

Michael Leddy said...

Thank you, Rachel!