Nate’s family has just moved to a new town. Again. Nate is less than thrilled. In a typical parental effort to cheer him up, his dad says, “Ready? It’s not every day a guy gets to pick out his own room.” Nate’s “Hurray for me…” sums up his feelings about that nicely.
But then he finds a room with a view of the cool tree house in the backyard and the stone wall beyond. There is even a tree in the wall that was split by lightning, with a door fitted into the split, just asking to be walked through. While exploring his new room, Nate finds an old reel-to-reel tape recorder under the floorboards, and a note, addressed to him (!), that reads “Find him.” Nate begins to listen.
Walter Pidgin, whose voice speaks to Nate on the old tape, was an unhappy and lonely boy who lived in the house fifty years ago. He realized that he was seeing strange, impossible things – squirrels in vests; grasshoppers riding dogs – and began carrying the tape recorder around to chronicle his discoveries. Was he going crazy? Or were these things real? They felt real…
When Nate asks around town, he finds out that Walter was a boy who went missing years ago, and was never recovered. It is apparently a famous town mystery. Then Nate starts seeing things he shouldn’t possibly be seeing: a grasshopper wearing a monocle and riding a squirrel; a broken china doll that walks around and talks to him. With the help of a neighbor girl, Tabitha, he begins to discover what really happened to that boy from so long ago.
Told in back and forth narrative, from Nate’s point of view and from Walter’s recordings, the reader sees how each boy’s discoveries mirror the other’s. Nate and Walter both feel separate from the community, Nate because he just moved there, Walter because of the verbal abuse from his father. They both see the same creatures, who do not appear to have aged in the intervening fifty years. Ultimately, Nate successfully follows the path that Walter had started out on fifty years previously.
Ruth’s use of ink and charcoal drawings elicit an accurate feeling for each time period. The details – the styles of the cars and clothing, the slang people use – are all spot on. Ruth is generous with his use of shading to indicate mood, but not so much as to obscure the art. The flashback scenes have black gutters to delineate them from the present. Ruth has a good sense of pacing in the book, using the flashback scenes to move the story forward. While it is a complete tale in itself, the reader is left with a hint of more to come, which I, for one, would love to see happen.