Tom Slade, Forest Ranger

June 2, 2018

I started Tom Slade, Forest Ranger in January (at a hockey game) but I couldn’t get through it. This kid Henny Vollmer kills someone by accident, and it was stressing me out.

It stresses Henny out, too. Sure, he’d sworn to kill Mr. Peck, who indirectly killed Henny’s father, but then Henny became a boy scout and learned about good turns, and decided to do something nice for Peck instead. Only it backfires, and Peck ends up dead, and Henny ends up chased up a mountain by a bloodhound. And in a lookout post on the mountain, he finds Tom Slade.

Tom, in one of the Tom Slade-iest moves of all time, heard that the lookout post (for spotting forest fires) was going unmanned, and decided to apply for the job himself. That’s lucky for Henny, because Tom is probably the person most likely to understand him and believe in him. They’re also kind of similar–both quiet, stubborn, and given to working through problems on their own, with sometimes surprising results. Soon Tom’s friend Brent Gaylong shows up, too, and starts in on the detective work required to clear Henny. I thought the mystery in Tom Slade, Forest Ranger was really well constructed. I don’t want to give anything away, but let’s just say that Henny’s situation is as much a symptom as a cause.

This is actually the latest Tom Slade book I’ve read to date, so as I read I thought a lot about how the series evolved. Things change in a couple of ways. First, Tom increasingly gets sidelined in his own series. Sometimes that’s about focusing on a character young enough to be a boy scout. Sometimes it’s because Percy Keese Fitzhugh has seen fit to give Brent Gaylong the brilliant detective brain. Here, it’s both, and I’d be offended on Tom’s behalf, except that I suspect the alternative would be for Tom to become less Tom-like, and I wouldn’t want that.

The other kind of change is Fitzhugh growing as a writer, which is mostly really fun. Tom Slade, Forest Ranger gets philosophical, and it gets dark — if you couldn’t tell from the accidental murder. That death is described in a little more detail than you might expect, and some of the locals’ violence towards Henny shocked me. They hate him because he’s German in the wake of World War I, and an outsider in a small town, and they hate him enough that they don’t really care if he’s guilty. That’s darker stuff than you really expect from a kids’ series book, and Fitzhugh pairs it with some broader thoughts on prejudice that were kind of cool to see, if a little hard to take in this context. After all, the people of Watson’s Bend may hate Henny for his German heritage, but Fitzhugh is the one who made him blond and truculent and not too bright, and who’s been stereotyping every German character he’s written for years. But I do like that he’s trying. And I liked this book, in spite of the anxiety that made me put it down for four months, and in spite of my beloved Tom Slade not being the main character in his own book. Tom may get a little less Tom as the series goes on, but Fitzhugh keeps getting better, so I’m still 100% on board.

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