by Linda Urban
Harcourt Children's Division (September 2011)
"Uncle Potluck said when he talked to the moon, the moon talked back."
—Hound Dog True
Some books are so darn delicious, there’s no joy in picking them apart to see what makes them tick. Hound Dog True, by Linda Urban, is one such gem. The voice, characterization, theme and gentle rhythm of words create a symphony of fine storytelling that elevate this simple story to another level. Yes. It’s that good. Hound Dog True had me at the first sentence and held me in its enchanting grip until the very last page. (As I read this, I kept thinking, did Barbara O'Connor change her name to Linda Urban?)
Told in close third person—so close it’s nearly first person—the story follows eleven-year old Mattie several days prior to starting a new school (fifth in as many years). Deeply hurt by the betrayal of a girl at her old school, shy Mattie is haunted by memories of past humiliations. There’s a poignantly funny flashback of one of her former first days when all she could think to tell the class was that she was not a Buddhist. Urban places this scene early in the book, which does a brilliant job of showing just how painfully tongue-tied Mattie can get. This and other flashbacks also serve to establish the interior world that Mattie inhabits, as well as reveal bits and pieces of her past troubles. Flashbacks usually drag down a narrative and slow the progress, but not in this book, where Urban skillfully uses them to bring us into the emotional life of Mattie.
The narration is beautifully composed and fully grounded in the perspective of this sensitive young girl who hopes to avoid the pain of all the treacherous times of day—those “lawless” periods of arrival, lunch and recess—by being her Uncle Potluck’s janitorial assistant. Of course, things do not go as planned and her hopes unravel with the unceremonious introduction of the neighbor's niece, Quincy, who appears to be prime betrayal material. Quincy lands in Mattie’s life with a deadpan delivery that goes plunk plunk plunk right on top of Mattie’s worst fears.
Mattie’s world is small, but it's peopled with memorable characters, such as Uncle Potluck who can spin a yarn like no one’s business (it’s his phrase, Hound Dog True, that gives the novel its title); the not-so-subtle neighbor who’s got designs on him; and, of course, Quincy, who is twelve years old and seemingly weary of life.
Even though Mattie could use a friend, she struggles with the hurt caused by her former classmate in the school she left behind. Quincy, with her teenagery long legs and do-not-care attitude, feeds right into to Mattie’s worries. Although the book focuses on her fear of betrayal and humiliation, the unspoken threat (which Quincy represents) is that of growing up and losing control. Like everything else about this book, Urban handles these themes with a gentle, but assuring touch. And, mostly importantly, with a great dose of humor throughout.
Hound Dog True is a short novel, told over a very short period of time, but boy oh boy, it makes a large and lasting impression. Other than that, I don't have much to say, except this: Read it!
Source: I bought my copy at Barnes & Noble.