Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Giano Cromley Recommends: Mystery in the Night Woods

And so we continue our Writers Recommend - a new series where we'll be asking writers to, well, you know.. recommend things. Like the books that they've enjoyed. To you. Because who doesn't like being recommended new and interesting books, right?! Think of it as a PSA. Only it's more like a LSA -Literary Service Announcement. Your welcome. 

Giano Cromley Recommends Mystery in the Night Woods by John Peterson

When Lori mentioned her “most influential book” blog series, one book leapt to mind – a memory-flash that brought me back to my most formative reading experience. I told her I’d do it and then set out to track down a copy of Mystery in the Night Woods by John Peterson. Published in 1969 and long since out of print, the interwebs assisted me greatly in finding a used copy.

I first obtained Mystery in the Night Woods when I was nine. My family had gone to the annual book sale at the Parmly Billings Library where I stumbled across this paperback with a picture of a scarf-wearing squirrel and a bat on the cover.

At 80 pages, it was the longest book I’d attempted to read up to that point. But it was immediately rewarding. This book had the perfect cocktail of story elements – friendship, betrayal, crime, struggle, redemption, and anthropomorphic cross-dressing animals – that set my nine-year-old endorphins pumping. It remained my favorite book until well after the point when admitting your favorite book has a character named Police Chief Skunk would prove to be a social liability.

As a writer, it showed me how a book can create an entire world. From the opening lines, Peterson’s writing is filled with tiny details that help draw you in to the Night Woods: “The setting sun made long shadows in the Night Woods. The day animals were going to bed. They were finished with the work of the day. Now the night animals were waking up. It was time for their day to begin.” In the span of its eighty pages, the reader gets a glimpse of the Night Woods’ judicial system, its banking system, its network of friendships and alliances. It’s a fully functioning society operating at night, like some kind of shadow universe just beyond the one we know. I was inspired by this act of creation. It allowed my pre-teen self to dream of other worlds, other stories, that one day I might tell.

The story revolves around the relationship between the charming but overbearing Flying Squirrel, and his friend Bat. We first see them on the night that Bat is teaching F.S. to fly. Soon after that night, F.S. is accused of a crime and banished to Far Island. The rest of the story follows F.S.’s struggle to redeem himself in the eyes of his fellow Night Woods citizens.

A used copy of Mystery in the Night Woods arrived this past week, and I was struck by how slender it felt. I was nervous that it might not live up to my memories. When I finally got up the courage to read it, though, I was not let down. The story is still engaging and the Night Woods are still as interesting and fascinating as ever.

I was also struck by details I could not have noticed as a child. I’d never recognized the hubris of Flying Squirrel. He believes everything and everyone in the world is malleable to this will – and this is what gets him into trouble. I was also struck by a somewhat superfluous section where F.S. is reunited with his mother, who he hasn’t seen in years. It is touching and painful in a way I could have never understood before.

There was one final gift this book gave me. Reading it last week, I came across a passage when F.S. is attempting to escape from Far Island and finds himself caught up in the raging waters of Bad Creek:

“Flying Squirrel sank toward the bottom of Bad Creek. He thought his life was over. Then he remembered something Bat had said: ‘A drowning animal sinks three times before he dies.’ The little squirrel kicked and paddled hard with his paws. ‘I’m going to get my three chances,’ he decided, ‘just like everybody else.’”

Seriously, just read that passage again for its profound truth! Now read it out loud, and feel the meter of those syllables! We all could benefit from hearing that lesson more often, repeating it like a mantra.

To me, writing is an act of resistance, defiance even. It’s a measure of how well you can take criticism, risk failure, and not let it crush your spirit. I didn’t understand that when I was a child, but I’d like to think this passage left a subliminal mark, that it made me more resilient, more able to bounce back from adversity, to swim toward the surface when all hope seems lost.

Giano Cromley was born in Billings, Montana. The Last Good Halloween is his first novel. His writing has appeared in The Threepenny ReviewLiteral Latte, and The Bygone Bureau, among others. He is a recipient of an Artists Fellowship from the Illinois Arts Council. He teaches English at Kennedy-King College and lives on Chicago's South Side with his wife and two dogs.

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