Book Review: THE TRUE BLUE SCOUTS OF SUGAR MAN SWAMP (Appelt, 2013)

Kathi Appelt’s THE TRUE BLUE SCOUTS OF SUGAR MAN SWAMP has the distinction of being the first piece of raccoon literature we brought into our home. I purchased it for my then-11 and 8-year-old sons shortly after the wildlife rescue where we volunteer began to rehabilitate baby raccoons.

Other than a reference to anthropomorphized raccoons Bingo and J’Miah’s “parents” (raccoon dads are out of the picture by the time the babies are born), the book offers a fairly accurate portrayal of young raccoons’ inquisitive, problem-solving habits. Bingo and J’Miah are very realistic for the most part, portrayed as nocturnal, dexterous, sweet-toothed collectors who go into “emergency poof mode” when they feel threatened, and can be prey as well as opportunistic omnivores. On their own for the first time, they dream up “missions” and get themselves in trouble as all young raccoons seem to do.

Of course, their adventures aren’t the only ones to be found in the book. They have a human counterpart, Chap, who’s on his own mission to save his beloved swamp from developers — who are but one set of villains to be found in the story. Feral hogs are another threat, just as invasive and destructive as the developers aim to be.

Very similar in tone to its spiritual predecessor, Carl Hiaasen’s HOOT, THE TRUE BLUE SCOUTS OF SUGAR MAN SWAMP softens the rough edges of grief and anger and humiliation with humor and wit. Told with somewhat more of a “tall tale” style, it changes perspective among heroes and villains alike. At times the result feels a little disjointed, and at times characters become more caricature, but it remains overall entertaining.

Coexistence is woven throughout the story, with Appelt demonstrating the role each creature plays in the swamp’s survival: canebrake rattlers who protect the sugarcane from interlopers, for one. (Adult fans of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy might appreciate a brief reference to the “ghost bird,” the ivory-billed woodpecker that makes its home in the subtropical Southeast.) Alligators, opossums, and others all make appearances, too — as does the Sugar Man, a creature that’s “… taller than his cousin Sasquatch [and]…. Way taller than the Yeti.” Risking “the wrath of the Sugar Man” is something all the characters will have to do.

There are some nice parallels between the way humans and animals each coexist in the swamp, as well as address threats to it — with the Sugar Man a cross between them. One of the best moments in the book comes at a quieter point, when Chap discovers the raccoons have stolen a fair number of sugar pies. His initial reaction is the desire to hurt them somehow, but remembers his recently deceased and much-missed grandfather wouldn’t want that. The situation resolves itself, and Chap figures out how to make peace.

Overall, THE TRUE BLUE SCOUTS OF SUGAR MAN SWAMP tells a great adventure story while teaching the reader something along the way, and is a wonderful addition to any coexistence-themed bookshelf!

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