Saturday, August 1, 2015

Unstoppable Octobia May

Unstoppable Octobia May
Sharon G. Flake
Scholastic, 2014  276 pg.
Grades 4-6
Historical Fiction/Mystery

Octobia May, a miracle girl who survived the ordeal of her heart ceasing to beat, lives with her Aunt Shuma in a boarding house with a multitude of geriatric residents in a small southern town in 1953. Aunt Shuma wants to grow the boarding house into a chain of hotels, but its impossible for an African American woman to get ahead in the 1950's Jim Crow south.She is raising Octobia May to be feisty, confident, and independent, which annoys many of the "good people" of both races in their town. Octobia May is convinced that one of their boarders, Mr. Davenport, is a vampire and she and her best friend Jonah set out to prove her theory. They do not find proof that he is a vampire, but they do catch him in many suspicious acts, including the murder of a causation bank teller. No one believes Octobia May's accusations about the former war-hero and her investigation leads to nothing but trouble. A new girl in the neighborhood, Bessie, surprises Octobia May by having interracial parents and not being able to speak after a family tragedy. Octobia May wears down Bessie with patience and kindness and helps her to find healing. The evil Mr. Davenport offers Aunt Shuma a private meeting with a local bank manger, which may result in a long-awaited loan to kick-start her dreams. Octobia May and Jonah crash the meeting and discover that the deal really is too good to be true and keep Aunt Shuma from making a huge mistake. Mr. Davenport's secrets eventually come to light with some surprises along the way, revealing some factual and seldom told secrets of America's history. Octobia May and Jonah find themselves in serious peril, but never give up fighting for the truth and saving those they love.

Flake uncovers a piece of American history rarely discussed in children's literature: the discrimination of the United States army during World War II and the willingness of some African Americans to "pass" as white in order to find success. African Americans during this time could not be promoted or supervise anyone with light skin. Men would pretend to be Caucasian in order to advance both in the military and in life in general. Flake presents this terrible chapter of our history, along with a vivid description of 1950's Jim Crow south in a highly readable mystery. Octobia May is a very likable character. Her tenacity and courage serve as an inspiration to all young people and they will either want to be her or be friends with her. Adding Jonah as her best friend and sidekick brings boy readers to the story and keeps the book from seeming too "girlie", which is isn't. The mystery starts as the reader tries to determine if Mr. Davenport is a vampire (which we are pretty sure early on that he isn't) and then gets more serious as we see our villain commit murder and introduce a relationship with the bank president. The situation is not as black and white as it seems as Mr. Davenport reveals his motivations in a "Scooby-doo" confession at the end and actually saves Octobia May's (his arch-enemy) life. Flake adds humor to the story (my favorite part being when Jonah perms Octobia May's hair), which helps to lighten it up and bring the entertainment. The boardinghouse oldsters add to the flavor of the book and provide Octobia May with all the support and love a young detective needs. Not a prefect girl, Octobia May finds herself in trouble regularly and doesn't know when to keep her mouth shut, but is so brave, interesting, and courageous that we forgive her as often as Aunt Shuma does. Will Octobia May have another adventure with her friends? We can only hope so.

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