Operation Redwood by S. Terrell French, 350 pp, Reading Level 4

is now in PAPERBACK! 
Set in San Francisco and Willits, CA, Operation Redwood, the debut novel by S Terrell French, is impossible to write about without the giving significant page time to the serious environmental issues raised in the book, indicated by the title and excellent cover illustration by the superb, hard working Greg Swearingen. But, before I launch into that I want to tell you about the wonderfully drawn main character, Julian Carter-Li and the engrossing plot he stumbles into. At the start of the story Julian a conflicted, ambivalent, compliant twelve year old who's best interests are often secondary to those of the adults around him. His father has died before resolving a family feud that has kept Julian from knowing his paternal relatives for almost all of his life. Julian's mother has a strained relationship with her own mother, a hard working journalist who lives in Sacramento, and they see her only once or twice a year. Julian's best friend, Danny Lopez, comes from a more traditional, two parent home and is a source of stability and laughter. The catalyst for the events of the story, Robin Elder and her family, make up an excellent contrast to the urban life that Julian and Danny lead, as well as providing the informed, moral voice in the story. The plot is so well thought out and paced that it feels like it is based on a true story. How the kids navigate around authority to achieve their goals feels realistic and never usefully coincidental and the emotional and personal growth that Julian experiences by the end of the book is utterly genuine. As Besty Bird says in her review at FUSE#8, "Over and over I noticed Ms French refusing to leave loose ends dangling or logical plot points flailing." Everything has an explanation and everything makes sense, the good parts and the bad. Best of all, there is a surprise character who pops up at the end of the book to set things right, giving the story a very From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler feel, which I loved.

S Terrell French is a graduate of Harvard College and Berkeley Law, has been a forest service volunteer and is currently a practicing environmental lawyer in San Francisco. I can't think of anyone better to write a book like this or anyone who could see all sides of the story the way a person with Ms French's background can. The author's note at the end of the book, which tells you what aspects of the story are true and what is happening today (as well as more extensive information on the redwood forest at the website) is as informative as it is even handed in the presentation of the facts. At the heart of Operation Redwood is a stand of old growth red wood trees that is referred to as Big Tree Grove. The stand has been sold to an investment firm who has decided to profit from the sale of the timber and has the THP (timber harvest plan) cleared by the government making it perfectly legal. Of course scientists and environmentalists have tried to stop the clear cutting of the grove, but the government has decided against them, something Ms French points out but doesn't make a pointed issue of in the book. The bad guys here are IPX, the investment firm who now owns the stand, and their CEO who happens to be Julian's paternat uncle, Sibley Carter.* Through the characters of the Elder family, twelve-year old Robin, specifically, the history of the redwoods and practice of clear cutting that has decimated 95 percent of the original redwood forest is detailed. Huckleberry Farm, the home of the Elders, is on 250 acres that includes second growth redwoods. As a native (Southern) Californian I have been to the redwoods and have a basic understanding of the decimation that has occurred. I know who Julia Butterfly Hill is and what she did to protest clear cutting of the Headwaters stands near Humboldt, California. But, I'd imagine that to someone who has never actually seen the redwoods this reads like a story where people are fighting to save an endangered animal that is on the verge of extinction. I think that it is an important lesson for kids (and adults) to learn that trees and plants, as well as animals, can become extinct. Ms French also does a great job linking the global to the local when Julian says, "In school we're always studying the rain forests in Brazil and Africa. And people are always trying to get you to sign petitions to save the rain forest and buy special rain-forest nuts. And we never learned anything about the people cutting down redwoods in California."

For readers who know nothing about the redwoods, French unfolds their history in bits and pieces through the words and actions of various characters in the book in a way that does not feel didactic at all. Young readers should have no problem following the story and fitting the pieces of family and environmental drama together. And the family drama is great. Sibley Carter has moved with his wife Daphne and their son Preston from Boston to San Francisco so that he can take over the position of CEO at IPX, the investment firm that has bought Big Tree Grove. When Julian's mother, who is a photographer, gets a grant to spend five months photographing Buddhist statues and temples in China, leaving him with his new-found, well off relatives seems like a good idea. However, Sibley harbors old grudges against his brother and takes every opportunity to see the same unlikable qualities in his nephew. His wife just takes every opportunity to make Julian's life miserable in very creative but cruel ways. Daphne Carter is such a great villain and so exacting and seemingly logical in her grinding punishments of Julian that I really enjoyed every scene she was in, even while I was cringing and gasping for poor Julian. Ms French does a great job getting into Julian's head and you can see how he reasons out the treatment he is receiving, the absence of his mother and how he grows and changes when he spends time in the completely new environment of Huckleberry Ranch. One of the scenes that really struck me as impressive was when Julian, who has been caught lying to an adult who's trust was hard won, has the opportunity to apologize, verbally or in writing, and does not. As an adult, it seemed like such an obvious thing to apologize, but French lets Julian follow his own, twelve-year old way of thinking to find reasons not to. Time and again in Operation Redwood, Ms French presents plot elements that seem to have obvious resolutions and takes them down a different, but believable path. And, the pay off for these twists and turns is always worth it. Julian's non-apology makes a very rewarding, beleiveable reappearance in the story towards the end of the book.

I realize that I have used the word "believable" over and over again in this review. This is a testament to the skill of Ms French as a writer. Hoot by Carl Hiaasen, involves attempts to save an endangered species from corporate bad guys and has many plot elements that are similar to those in Operation Redwood. However, while it's very well written and entertaining, Hiaasen's book is much more finessed, the characters are more caricatures and the plot is a bit more pat. Ms French's story, in which the main child characters are a two or so years younger than those in Hoot (and this does make a difference) feels a bit more organic, if you will forgive me for using that word, in it's evolution and presentation, which meshes perfectly with the plot and characters.

This book is definitely a perfect fit for readers who enjoy real life stories and authors like Andrew ClementsWendy Mass, and EL Konigsburg. Readers might especially enjoy her book The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place in which a young girl rallies her friends and campmates to save a work of art. 

Readers who liked this book might also enjoy:

Fern Verdant and the Silver Rose by Diana Leszczynski
Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson
Toby Alone by Timothée de Fombelle

*The name Sibley immediately reminded me of David Sibley, the ornithologist and illustrator of the very popular, comprehensive field guides for birds. Interesting name to give to the character who is not in tune with nature...

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