Susan Cooper, Green Boy (Margaret K. McElderry, 2002)

By my count, Susan Cooper has written four masterpieces: The Dark Is Rising, The Grey King, Silver on the Tree, and Seaward.  The rest of her work ranges from very good but not great (King of Shadows and Greenwitch) to entertaining while one reads them, but ultimately forgettable (Over Sea, Under Stone, The Boggart, Dawn of Fear).

Green Boy doesn't fit into any of those categories, being an ambitious failure sunk by, of all things, preachiness. Yes, it's yet another children's book which explains at great length that nature is good, paving paradise to put up a parking lot is bad, and developers are small minded and dishonest people. The path to Hell is paved with good intentioned books like this.

Twelve-year-old Trey, whose gender is left ambiguous, and his or her mute younger brother Lou live on a beautiful but poverty stricken island in the Bahamas. They live with their grandparents, as their father left when Lou was a baby, and their mother lives far away because there are no decent jobs on the island.

A doctor suggested that Lou's muteness and seizures are psychological rather than physiological, and that he could probably be cured if he was sent to the superior medical facilities in the US. But:

"Mam said no, she'd rather have a quiet little boy who lived at home.

I used to think about that doctor sometimes and wonder if he was right. That was before I found out the things that were so strange and special about Lou, things no doctor would ever be able to understand."

That passage is key to the message of the book, which is not just pro-environment but anti-technology, anti-city, and even, apparently, anti-modern medicine. Better to leave Lou the way he is, a child who cannot speak, suffers painful and frightening seizures, and whose future as an adult will be sharply constrained, than expose him to the corrupting influence of the big city and heartless doctors who want to cure him rather than understand his specialness.

This romanticization of mental illness is tied in with Cooper's pro-environmental message: anything natural is better than anything man-made. People must live in harmony with nature, even if it means accepting rampant unemployment and children who cannot speak, because the alternative is worse.

The intertwining plot lines support this thesis.  Evil developers plot to build a hotel complex over the most unspoiled part of the island's ecosystem; and though they say it will bring jobs, Trey's wise grandfather points out that not only is that a lie, but the man who stands up at a meeting on the subject, claims to be a resident, and says he wants the development because he wants a job, is not actually a resident and was hired by the developers to say so. Though some of the island's residents are indifferent to the planned development, none actively favor it.

This is not only unrealistic, given the lack of jobs on the island, but actually undermines Cooper's thesis. Perhaps she was afraid that if she had even one reasonable person favor development, the reader would agree with that stance. As it is, she stacks the deck so high that it tempts readers to become devil's advocates. The book made me, a fervent environmentalist, think that the Bahamas probably could use more development, only sensibly planned so as not to wreck the ecosystem. That, however, is not presented as an option.

Meanwhile, Trey and Lou are periodically swept up into a nightmarish urban future of total environmental destruction, in which Lou is hailed as a savior by a furtive band of underground renegades. In Cooper's lone nod to complexity, the rebels turn out to be as ruthless as the evil high-tech rulers.  It's up to Lou, whose silence symbolizes his innocence and closeness to Mother Earth, to save both the past and the future.

Like all of Cooper's work, this is a beautifully written and evocative novel, with a number of astonishing images.  But, like some of her other books, the central plot is arbitrary (Why is Lou the savior? Why the necessity for magic fossilized starfish?), and the good guys who assist the children are as creepy and manipulative as the bad guys.  I don't count the latter as a flaw; but it sits oddly with the heavy handed message-mongering of the rest of the book.

Green Boy's worth one read for the prose, and for the sequence in which Lou tames a pit of giant mutant millipedes. But when I'm looking to re-read a Susan Cooper novel, I'll go with The Dark Is Rising or Seaward instead.

[Rachel Manija Brown]

Susan Cooper's beautiful home page is www.thelostland.com

GMR has also reviewed Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series.