I usually love one-room schools. For Book Links magazine, back in March 2005, I wrote an annotated bibliography of books taking place in one-roomers. While publicizing my Depression-era middle-grade novel Chig and the Second Spread, I did a tour of one-room schoolhouses, reading and signing the book—and snapping photos (like this one of the Marshall Center School in Cedar Falls, IA)—along the way.
For me, country schools evoke warm and cozy feelings. So it was a bit of a jolt to read Kelly Barnhill’s middle-grade novel The Mostly True Story of Jack. It’s set in small-town Iowa, and there’s on old country school on a rise at the edge of town, just as you’ll find all over Iowa. But children who go into this school never come out again.
Their souls are stolen and all memory of them among the living quickly fades away. It’s a deeply unsettling concept, this soul-sucking Iowa one-room school. And Barnhill does a good job of keeping the reader guessing and building suspense.
But will I add Jack to my list of favorite books in one-room school settings? Probably not. The story was a little too strange, too amorphous, and too unsettling to recommend to the students at my middle school.
However, Barnhill is a talented writer. She kept me turning the pages, and I’m no fan of magical realism. Not only that, she managed to show me how there might be a soul-sucking school in Iowa and how a boy named Jack could be brave enough to go down to the roots of the town’s awful magic and set those lost souls free.
FYI, If you remember my earlier post (Jan. 6, 2012) on localires, you'll know that The Mostly True Story of Jack, is part of a good localire diet, if one lives in the Twin Cities. And it's mostly tasty.