The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill

JackGoodreads: The Mostly True Story of Jack

Summary: All his life, people have ignored Jack.  Their eyes glance over him as if he is invisible, they forget to speak to him, and they never notice when his image disappears from photographs.  When he visits his aunt and uncle in Hazelwood, Iowa, then, Jack is surprised to discover that others take an interest in him.  He makes new friends, encounters the neighborhood bully and—strangest of all—finds himself the enemy of the richest man in town.  Only by uncovering the secret of his past will Jack learn the truth about the happenings in Hazelwood—but the locals talk about magic, and Jack can never believe in anything as ridiculous as that.

Review: The Mostly True Story of Jack has an intriguing premise: an overlooked boy, a town full of magic, and an ancient curse about to awake.  It possesses all the components for a satisfying, if not completely original, middle-grade fantasy.  The book tries, however, to present itself as more profound than it is.  Standard fantasy fare mixes with random cryptic statements about truth and stories, and the result is a book that both explains too much and too little.  More than anything else, the book is confusing.

The beginning of the book promises an exciting adventure story perhaps in the vein of Harry Potter or 100 Cupboards—a boy who has never experienced much love finds himself in a new place, the center of attention, and about to discover a world full of magic.  The possibilities seem endless.  Unfortunately, Jack lacks the intellectual curiosity that would allow him to take advantage of this situation and the story quickly falls flat.  Jack fails to see obvious clues that line up in front of him, cannot get anyone to answer his questions even though they all obviously expect him to do something cool with magic and soon, and continues to ignore all the magic in front of him so that he mostly presents himself as stubborn and annoying.

Granted, a realistic view of affairs might suggest a boy would not gleefully hand himself over to the possibility of magic, but his hesitance would have been easily overcome if the other characters had not had some inexplicable aversion to telling him what they all already know anyway.  Their refusal to speak to him about the happenings in town does not seem realistic, but merely a ploy to lengthen the suspense for readers.  Readers will probably get the gist of the “mystery” anyway, so this tactic mostly makes the characters seem a little superior and obnoxious.

Perhaps as a result of their strange silence, I never connected emotionally with the majority of the characters. They seem a little flat, a little too stock, all the way from the bully with a backstory to the magician who sold his soul like Faustus.  Jack’s uncle the quirky professor has potential, but Jack likes to avoid him for some reason, so he does not enter the story as much as I would have liked.  Jack’s three new friends comprise the other interesting characters—they seem like friends I would like to have—but one of them, Wendy, gets most of the attention.  I can only assume she satisfies the requirement for a smart, independent, and slightly aggressive female and thus needs to be featured more than the other males.

[Spoiler Warning] Wendy regrettably also ends up fulfilling the apparently necessary role of love interest in the story.  If anything, I saw a romance budding between her and her long-time friend Anders, who has the intelligence to hold her hand in order to cover up some scars she incurred in a questionable activity.  I thought it was a cute gesture, perhaps conveying more than Wendy supposed.  However, poor Anders cannot hold out against the interest of the main protagonist.  Jack develops feelings for Wendy seemingly out of thin air and she appears to reciprocate them.  Alas for Anders.

The story might have risen above the problems of characterization if the plot had had enough suspense and action to keep the interest of readers, but unfortunately the rules of this particular magical world do not seem wholly developed and the events were thus somewhat hard to follow.  Some explanations for events were given, but sometimes they seemed vague and sometimes they seemed irrelevant.  In the end, everything was supposed to come together because of some insight about how everyone has good and evil within them, but this development sprang forth suddenly and did not mesh with much of anything that had come before.

I enjoyed reading The Mostly True Story of Jack, but I assumed as I was reading that the relevance of the title would reveal itself and that events would somehow come together to create a satisfying conclusion.  That never happened.  I can only hope that one day a sequel will appear explaining everything.

Published: 2011


2 thoughts on “The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill

  1. Andrea @ The Overstuffed Bookcase says:

    Well, darn! This one definitely has so much potential and I’m sorry to hear that it falls flat. And I also get really annoyed when things are left unsaid or kept from the reader in some way simply to allow for a reveal at the end. Yes, I love mystery, and yes, don’t tell me everything early on, but there needs to be a good reason for the information being withheld. Great review, Krysta!


    • Krysta says:

      I was really excited to read it because the summary sounded so promising and I’d never heard of it before–I love discovering secret gems when I read! Alas. And it’s not really a reveal when the reader has guessed everything from the start, so that was awkward. I will say, though, that the cover is really striking. 😉


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