Wheezer and the Painted Frog (Mysteries from the Trail of Tears) (2011)
By Kitty Sutton
How did I get this book? I bought it.
Available on Amazon.
This book is a wonderful find. It’s an involving, well written, well plotted story about a thirteen-year-old Cherokee girl, Sasa, who investigates the mysterious death of her young brother in the barren new settlement to which her tribe has been relegated after walking the Trail of Tears. Sasa teams up with a preternaturally intelligent Jack Russell terrier she rescues and names Wheezer, as well as several older people in her community. She’s also assisted by Wheezer’s original owner (a virtuous young white man named Jackson) and a few others. As the investigation continues, Sasa and her friends uncover a cruel plot to steal funds intended to purchase supplies for the relocated Cherokee, who are facing an approaching winter and have no means of feeding themselves.
The book is a mystery-thriller hybrid: the reader is in on some of the villains’ machinations, but not all of them. It also strikes me as a hybrid between children’s and young-adult fiction. The bad folks are relentlessly wicked, and the good people are without fault, a type of characterization I associate with work intended for young readers. On the other hand, Sasa’s age and maturity, as well as the book’s more graphic descriptions of death and injury, seem aimed at older kids (in the fourteen- to seventeen-year-old age range, I’d say). The cover, in both its shape and sweetly drawn central figure, looks appropriate for a children’s book. Yet other elements, including Sasa’s little brother’s death and the book’s setting in the aftermath of the U.S. government’s genocidal relocation of the southeastern tribes, probably make Wheezer and the Painted Frog inappropriate for young children. Lastly, while much of the book is told from Sasa’s point of view, we also see a lot of material from Jackson’s point of view, and he’s much older — well out of young-adult territory — and has more adult interests.
This generic hybridity strikes me as one of the book’s great strengths. It’s simply not like most of what’s out there. On the other hand, it may also make marketing the book more challenging. We read in a very pigeon-holed way, these days, and readers tend to enforce generic boundaries pretty firmly.
I hope Wheezer and the Painted Frog doesn’t go unread for such reasons because it’s terrific. Sasa is a strong and sympathetic protagonist, and Wheezer is a real charmer. Furthermore, the novel puts Native American history front and center. I bet that’s all too rare a reading experience for the average American teen, and it shouldn’t be.
Sutton has now published the second book in the Trail of Tears Mystery series, Wheezer and the Shy Coyote. I probably won’t get to it for a while — I’m quite behind on my reading and reviewing. But it’s certainly in my TBR piles, and when my daughters are old enough, all the Wheezer books will end up on their reading devices as well.
This review will be cross-posted to Amazon.