With only a dozen pages to go, Salamanca Tree Hiddle, the hero of Walk Two Moons, scrambles through the night down a steep mountainside in Idaho. She finds the crumpled wreck of a bus in which, just over a year ago, her mother had died. With her grandparents, "Sal" has driven across the States, following her mother's route, to visit the grave on her mother's birthday.
Like all the best travellers in children's books, she learns much along the way. On a first reading, I was moved by the ending yet also felt cheated; for this is a kind of mystery story, and it seemed that Sal (the narrator) knows more than she is telling. She knows her mother is dead, and the circumstances of the death, long before we do. A second reading shows that the warning clues are there, yet so embedded within the complex strata of the novel that they prompt only a moment's questioning before the urgency of events takes over again. This is not unfairly manipulative. Our uncertainty places us alongside the Sal who may "know" the facts, but still must reach a felt acceptance of the truth.
At her grandparents' shrewd request for a story to occupy the time as they drive, Sal tells them of Phoebe Winterbottom, a classmate whose mother also leaves her family. Sal's mother left to try to discover how her Native American ancestry - "Indian", she prefers - has shaped her. Phoebe's suburban housewife of a mother leaves to find the youthful self who bore a son she then gave away. As Sal travels, she understands more deeply the story of Phoebe, the stories of the families of other classmates, and the story she is now witnessing of the love between her grandparents. These narratives allow her own, her mother's, and her grieving father's stories to come increasingly into focus.
These threads are interwoven with a dexterity which should enable many young readers to relish the telling as well as the tale. There is much else to enjoy which, in less skilled hands, might have seemed stale: crazy but lovable grandparents with a hillbilly turn of phrase; a dash of budding romance told with wry humour - kisses keep missing their targets; mysterious messages and alarming visitors; teenage dialogue marked by the kind of transatlantic wackiness we've known from Paul Zindel and Judy Blume onwards.
The book recently won the Newbery Medal (the US equivalent to the Carnegie) and was shortlisted for the Smarties Prize. Older readers might wince a little at the rather folksy use of epigrams, one of which provides the book's title: "Don't judge a man until you've walked two moons in his moccasins". And that notion, after all, surely still reflects what most literature teachers in schools want for their students.