(Be warned –spoilers ahead)
In his debut novel, Mosquitoland, author David Arnold showcases a finely tuned talent for writing with the voice of a modern young person. He deftly drops the names of popular and imagined cultural references to his mixture to keep his story real. He sprinkles his character’s language with the requisite swear words, from the mundane to the explicit. He even produces a pervert –a child molester who preys on young people in fast food restrooms — to keep readers on our toes as we follow the story of Mary Iris Malone (Mim for short) as she journeys toward Cleveland from Mississippi. She’s on a desperate trek to reach her mother after she suddenly goes silent.
Arnold’s story has all the ingredients of a success, including a love story and a Native American character of ambiguous ethnicity (Go Viking Books for Young Readers #WeNeedDiverseBooks). Mim’s voice comes through loud and clear, as do the voices of every character in the novel. For me, however, what was less clear was Mim’s emotional center. Her problem and its resolution felt pat.
Mim’s father, newly married after a quick divorce, has moved his new family from Ohio to Mississippi, the Mosquitoland of the title. As the story unfolds through both live narration and journal entries –letters to a mysterious “Isabelle”–the reader slowly begins to uncover the depth of Mim’s pain. We learn she has been prescribed an antipsychotic drug to prevent symptoms of a mental illness. We hear about her less-than-magazine-perfect life with her parents before the divorce. We learn about her soft spot for people in need. (Mim draws people to her like honey on waffles.) In that way, Mim’s heart and Arnold’s writing shine.
Mim’s odyssey is laced with strangers and diversions, including a gay gas station owner, a cookie-scented elderly woman (grandmother of said gas station owner), a knife-wielding schizophrenic, a “devastatingly handsome” college dropout, and a homeless boy with Downs Syndrome. This lovingly drawn supporting cast charges the narrative with humor, compassion and genuine emotion. But the abrupt and seemingly complete transformation of Mim’s attitude toward her stepmother, perpetrator of all evil done to her family in the previous six months, mars the narrative.
This is a fun, emotion-packed read, and readers will thoroughly enjoy the antics and adventures of Mim and her sidekicks. It will definitely entertain young adult readers. But its emotional truth, especially for those who know what it’s like to have a family riven by betrayal or illness, misses the mark. Otherwise, the humor, romance, and characters will keep readers turning pages to the final revelation.
Violence- minimal but present
Sexual tension –innocent and believable
Questionable behavior –minimal – other than disappearing without a trace, which of course is necessary for the story to get moving.
For Grades 7th and up.