Here is an intoxicating blend of Beowulf with the Everglades and football, three things that sounded incongruous but came together beautifully.
Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson. Random House, 2014.
Charlie has just moved to swampy Taper, Florida (pop. 6000) because his stepfather, Prater Mack, is taking over as football coach. Football is close to religion here, so that the whole town turns out for the funeral of the old football coach, Mr. Wisdom. The churchyard is so swampy that the church itself is visibly sunk into the soil and the mourners’ feet sink in as they stand for the service. There, Charlie meets Cotton, his stepfather’s nephew, who says he’s Charlie’s cousin, as well as an older football player who goes by Sugar. Cotton introduces Charlie to the traditional sport of rabbit running: trying to catch the rabbits running out of the swamp when the sugarcane is set on fire, without being caught in the flames or tripping over the venomous snakes also running away.
Despite Cotton’s welcome, Taper isn’t a comfortable place for Charlie – his abusive father was also from the same town. People here only remember him as the high school football hero he once was, not the man who left visible scars on both Charlie and his mother. More than anything, Charlie wants to keep her and his new baby sister Molly safe from him. That doesn’t stop him from going back to the churchyard with Cotton after dark. There, things turn strange: an old warrior with a helmet and sword and panthers, digging up the fresh grave. And from the swamp come unearthly howls, the Stanks or Grens that roam in the disheveled bodies of long-lost boys, looking for fresh blood. The lines between the real and the magical start to blur as Charlie and Cotton find themselves drawn into the ancient battle between the warriors and the Stanks.
Younger readers may not recognize the references to Grendel and his mother, but monsters roaming at night in search of boys to devour are just as deliciously frightening now as they were 1200 years ago. This story adds layers of nuance to the classic, as well. There’s a lot of reflection on the meaning of family – Charlie’s (to put it mildly) rocky relationship with his blood father, his more solid relationship with his stepfather, who happens, like Cotton, to be African-American, and more. And while Beowulf has that classic black-and-white view of the world, Boys of Blur has villains who terrify without being Evil for its own sake. The magic is as reality-altering and shifting as smoke and the ground of the burning swamps. Many elements combine to make a book with both excitement and substance. I highly recommend it.