By Carl Hiaasen
Although Carl Hiaasen lives in Florida, he clearly has a soft spot for Montana. In his latest middle grade novel "Squirm," he delivers a delightful romp through the backwoods of the Big Sky state as well as the Florida Everglades as told through the eyes of Billy Dickens. Part mystery, part adventure story, it makes for a great story for any young reader, especially one who enjoys wildlife or the outdoors.
The novel follows Billy as he tries to track down the father he doesn't remember and his mother won't talk about. He follows an address to Livingston where he finds a stepmom and step-sister in Lil and Summer, members of the Crow tribe and his dad's new family, but leaves with more questions than answers. A brush with his father high up a mountain trail comes only through a note delivered by a drone. When Dennis Dickens finally shows up back at his home in Florida, he explains what happened after he left Billy's mom and what his mysterious "job" entails. With a bit of extortion, Dennis brings Billy along for a journey that includes endangered wildlife, illegal poaching and plenty of suspenseful moments.
To say Billy is an animal lover would be a gross understatement. Maybe inspired by his eagle-loving single mother, Billy likes to catch snakes, even dangerous ones, and keeps them in a tank in the garage for a stretch before releasing them. He respects both the animals and the outdoors, which is probably why he spends more time exploring by himself than making friends. But through the events of the book, Billy overcomes his loner nature and brings his two families together while facing some major stakes.
Billy has a kind heart, but he does have a vengeful streak in him. Just ask the classmates who were surprised with a live diamondback snake when they opened a locker. True, it wasn't their locker, but Billy has a bit of a disregard for safety of himself or others in those situations. His heart may be in the right place, but Billy definitely is not a protagonist without flaws. And hopefully kids will listen when Billy admonishes readers to not try what he does at home. Also, a note to parents, there are a couple of censured swear words.
Hiaasen's descriptions are simple enough for a young reader, but instantly recognizable to a Montanan of any age. When Billy is taken into Yellowstone National Park, he comments, "This time of year, the Yellowstone experience is basically a traffic jam with incredible scenery." Hiaasen writes of the Montana wilderness with reverence, and readers will certainly enjoy the real Montana landscape that Hiaasen brings to the page. Whether it's flying into Bozeman and hitting I-90 or lazily floating the Yellowstone River, the books feels like a piece of home.