Sometimes the sum of the parts are greater than the whole. While Compass South has a lot going for it, as a whole I found the book lacking.
Let’s start with what works. Author Hope Larson (A Wrinkle in Time, Goldie Vance, and others) assembles a story that is as simple as it is appealing to an upper elementary/middle school audience. Orphan twins Alexander and Cleopatra are on the run from Luther and the Black Hook Gang. They see an ad in the newspaper that calls for information on the missing redhead twins Samuel and Jeremiah Kimball of San Francisco. These redheaded twins decide to take on the identities of the redheaded Kimball twins, and Cleo cuts her hair to assume the role of one of the Kimball boys. There’s a lot that stands between the twins and San Francisco, including a rival set of impostor Kimballs, shipmasters looking for child labor, jungles, and uncertain seas.
Rebecca Mock’s illustrations are gorgeous, studied, and self-assured. Considering this is her graphic novel debut, I am anticipating more showcases of her talent in the years to come. Mock puts care and attention into developing the mid-century setting of Compass South, down to the iron handrails in New Orleans and the sailors’ knots on ships. Colors make the artwork come alive, and Mock is comfortable varying how she uses colors. Some night scenes in the jungle are awash in all emerald hues to emphasize the isolation and creepy beauty of the setting, while other daytime scenes on the ship show a variety of tones to suggest action and work. Her teen characters are expressive in gestures, making them inviting and appealing for a young reader audience. In future books, however, I hope she moves away from her occasional reliance on anime conventions for expressing embarrassment or shame through sweat drops, as those conventions feel out of place in this period adventure.
As far as what doesn’t work here, I found that the rapid alternation of setting and storyline between Alexander and Cleopatra to be confusing, as the twins spend the majority of the story in separate places, hoping to reunite. I had a hard time telling the twins apart (I know, I know, I could have paid more attention to who was wearing what clothing) but more than that, I had a hard time telling the twins apart as characters. At no point did I stop to care which twin was Alexander and which one was Cleopatra, because for all intents and purposes the twins felt the same to me.
I also found the development of secondary characters, particularly characters of color, to be hasty, lacking, and based on archetypes that ultimately serve the white main characters. There’s a savior servant who goes unnammed towards the beginning of the story whose sole purpose is to reveal Mr. Prévost’s intentions. Later on, there’s a Bribri (indigenous tribe of Costa Rica) woman named Sar who is unusually grateful for the white teens’ help and again seems reduced to a plot point.
A sequel to Compass South, Knife’s Edge, is scheduled to be released next June. I hope to see the character of the non-white ship captain, Tarboro, developed more in the next volume as well as more character delineation between Alexander and Cleopatra.
by Hope Larson
Art by Rebecca Mock
Farrar Strous and Giroux, 2016
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12