, January 19, 2015
In his soon to be released thriller, Beneath, Roland Smith has once again found a fascinating setting and page turning set of circumstances to enthrall young readers. Deep under the city of New York, among architectural leftovers from a city always in a hurry to shed one skin after another, lie secrets only known to a few, and only to the invited.
Into this underground labyrinth, Coop O'Toole and his younger brother Pat are drawn, each for different reasons. Coop is attracted on some mystical wavelength, Pat is on a mission to find and save his brother.
The O'Toole brothers start their journeys from an upper middle class neighborhood on the outskirts of Washington D.C. Coop, the older brother with the kind of idiosyncrasies reminiscent of Maniac McGhee, shuns the modern accoutrements of youth, including cell phones, email, etc. Except for his brother Pat, friendships are not something he seeks. Inexplicable, underground, adventures are what keep his mind at full throttle. With the help of his brother Pat, they dig hundreds and hundreds of yards of tunnel under their neighborhood. After weeks of work the tunnel collapses, threatening Pat’s life, and drawing the attention of the FBI, concerned that the tunnel might be the work of terrorists.
Although Pat gets no plausible explanation of Coop's need to tunnel under their neighborhood, this is his first real glimpse of his teenager brother's obsession for all things underground. After a fight with his parents--one of many in continuing family battles--Coop disappears, leaving Pat to agonize, wondering why his brother took off without saying good-bye.
After a year, a strange package arrives containing a voice recorder from Coop. Included in the package are instructions to listen, respond, and then return a newly recorded message to a p.o. box in New York City. The back and forth messaging goes on for weeks until, without explanation, it stops.
Pat waits for what seems an eternity, praying the voice recorder will return. When it does not, with only Coop’s return address to go on, Pat devises a plan to trick his parents, getting himself to the Big Apple in a way where he will not be missed. The p.o. box is his only clue.
Like Jake Lansa stepping fresh off the plane in Nairobi, Pat is now on his own in a place that might as well be on another planet. Strange people seem to be lurking, watching him from doorways, following his every move. Pat finds the post office, then watches helplessly as a man in a suit uses a key to unlock, then empty the contents of Coop’s p.o. box. Pat demands to know how he has a key to his brother's box and what knowledge the man has of his brother. The man won't talk and rushes away. Pat follows. The clues begin to multiply; first the p.o. box, now this man, then a homeless person who might have seen Coop, and maybe a girl on the street who knows more.
After considerable searching, Pat accumulates enough street creds to earn him an invitation to an underground world that tests his courage and love for his brother. After the tunnel collapsed on Pat months before, he became insanely claustrophobic, barely able to think about tight places, yet alone a trip to an underground mystery, buried deep under the city. To find his brother, he must swallow his fear, trust an unlikely new friend, and leave an unfamiliar world for and even less familiar one.
Pat is led on a junkyard journey through ancient, dirt covered city ruins, first to a self sustaining community that has consciously shed itself of the material values of the world above, choosing only to live off what the upper world throws away every day. Pat discovers Coop's path to this community, then to a second community, one with the mystical promise of a girl, in a much more dangerous communal retreat--life threatening not only to Coop, but to thousands of people who live above.
Once underground, Beneath rockets to one hair raising crescendo after another, the story revealing itself on the voice recorded messages--both Coops and Pats, in addition to the story as it is happening.
As in many of his novels, Smith's concern for the way we treat our planet, intersects the storyline in a seamless, unobtrusive way. Beneath is no exception as it shines a light for young readers on the mountains of garbage humans produce in their frenzy to accumulate goods, while throwing away enough food in one day, in a city like New York, to feed a small nation. In previous books he has shone the same light on the mistreatment of world's tallest peak, deforestation in one of the world's most important eco systems, gross mistreatment of animals on all continents, and an oil spill in Alaska.
Another knockout effort by Smith, as he continues to use some of our world's most fantastic storytelling locations in his quest to create action packed novels young readers will love.
I'm planning on a sequel--you listening Mr. Smith?