I’ve always had a thing for maps. It started when I read The Hobbit and found myself enchanted by the quaint illustrations of Misty Mountains and mysterious runes and wispy-lettered place names that let Middle Earth bloom in my imagination. Later I became fascinated by early Western maps of the New World, where legendary places like Quivera and El Dorado hovered tentatively in places the mapmaker had clearly only imagined. When I was a young man in Edinburgh, I even met a real cartographer, one of the few remaining mapmakers in the world who still made maps by engraving them with special tools on copper plates. His name: David Webster. While he was no relation—or was he?—I took this for a sign: maps were destined to be part of my life, somehow.
Maps of imaginary places continued to play a role in my private inventions, and now a map itself is an actual character in one of my works-in-progress. Thus when I was browsing my local library’s collection of middle grade fiction and my eyes fell on N.E. Bode’s The Slippery Map, I quickly snapped it up. I was curious to see how another author would use a map in a middle grade fantasy, since my WIP is also a middle grade fantasy. More than 270 Bode pages later, I now have a pretty good idea.
First of all, The Slippery Map is a story, not a map. It doesn’t even have a map, despite a wildly imaginative and times confusing array of places, invented creatures, and quirky people. It’s well titled because the story itself is sort of slippery. An orphaned boy (yes, another orphan story) with the reality-challenged name Oyster R. Motel lives in a nunnery and uses a map to enter into an imaginary world that he later learns was created by his parents when they were children—and his parents are still alive in this imaginary world. Oyster must not only defeat the assorted threatening creatures (Spider Wolves, Snapping Dirt Clams, etc.) that stand in his way by employing such oddities as menthol-flavored figs, he ultimately must face down Dark Mouth, an industrial tyrant who enslaves the various Perths, Wingers, Doggers, and other whimsical denizens of this imaginary world. Dark Mouth also holds Oyster’s parents captive. Oyster finds his inner hero to rescue them, but he also needs the help of the nuns who have heretofore raised him, who come flying through the map with habits flapping in a frenzy.
I must confess there were times when I could have used both a map and a glossary to keep track of the places and characters in this story. It dragged in places, as episodic children’s stories can do at times. Two qualities proved to be its saving grace, however: a dreamish sense of tongue-in-cheek humor, and Oyster’s own soul-searching.
For me, the most touching humor comes when Oyster is temporarily seduced into giving in to the “good life” by one Vince Vance, a two-bit TV celeb hired by Dark Mouth to be his happy-happy mouth piece to keep the poor Perth citizens down. Oyster’s first impression of him:
A pair of Vicious Goggles snarled on either side of him [Oyster], and this alerted a Perth in a nearby lounge chair. The Perth was wearing swim trunks, a foil sun-reflector on his chest, and a pair of blue sunglasses. He looked freshly broiled.”
This pathetic “celeb” takes Oyster on a tour of his mansion staffed by elderly Perths, with stupendous, loud, famous-sounding music and an exceptionally fancy kitchen. Sensing that Vince Vance wants to be famous, Oyster mentions Hollywood. Intrigued, Vance tries to locate Hollywood on the Slippery Map, but instead inadvertently brings in Sister Mary Many Pockets from the Nunnery from the other side. Vance later obtains the Map and again tries to locate Hollywood—this time bringing in the entire nunnery.
The nuns have all taken a vow of silence, but Oyster manages to communicate with them through his heart. Despite his many self-doubts*, Oyster’s heart is his super power. With it he not only saves people, he reintegrates them into his life, and isn’t that something we would all like to do?
*A note here: the author Bode constantly—constantly—gives us updates on what Oyster is thinking and feeling: “It was strange to be so close to them [his parents]. He realized he was scared to see them. How would they react? He wanted so much from them—all the love he’d missed his whole life. His chest felt heavy with all of his wanting.” The Show Not Tell Police must have had a cow when they read this book, but hey—it’s middle grade.