The Degrees of Barley Lick
The Degrees of Barley Lick
This rollicking ride of a novel is tough to put down. It is so many things at once: a fast-paced contemporary adventure that bursts with humorous dialogue while also edging into “thriller” territory and touching on grief and romance. Told in third person from the point of view of 16-year-old Barley Lick (with the occasional point of view of Benjamin, a child in trouble), it centers on geocaching. That’s an intense, sophisticated version of an outdoor treasure hunt that involves understanding latitude and longitude; hence, the book’s title.
The author perfectly engages teens with spot-on dialogue, hormone-charged emotions, teen-sized messes and the well-drawn inner turmoil of Barley. Then there’s his love-hate relationship with his ex, a strong, driven girl who inspires a series of wrong-headed decisions on Barley’s part.
Phillis Henderson was super fit. She walked faster than most people run, and she ran faster than she talked, which was saying something, because she talked fast – like an auctioneer on Red Bull.
Barley and Phyllis are both superstars of geocaching, but they’re barely on speaking terms, given some recent history that ignites fury in Barley. And yet, all the book’s tension is nicely laced with humour.
A group of middle schoolers gave Barley the hairy eyeball when he, once again, materialized out of the ferns, butt first. They pointed and giggled. Barley ignored them, as if it were normal for teenagers to be crawling around the forest floor. Once upright, he high-fived Colin and the pair ran as fast as they could back to the small parking lot on Colebrook Rd.
What starts as the story of a geocache competition quickly evolves into some difficult choices when the opportunity to rescue a kidnapped child arises. Only the sharpest minds can veer off the race trail and follow clues that could save the boy’s life. But abandoning the race and joining forces with Phyllis are not the only prospects daunting our hero. He’s also carrying a load of grief over losing his father, and hostility toward his mom’s new boyfriend, who just happens to be a cop with serious leverage over Barley.
The writing is crisp and absorbing, drawing the reader ever deeper into the twists and turns of the story. The brief, tantalizing paragraphs revealing where Benjamin is are especially grabbing.
He hadn’t expected the underbrush to be so dense and tangled that he couldn’t advance in an upright or even a stooped position. Although the giant Douglas fir trees prevented light from reaching the forest floor, they didn’t discourage growth. The only way Benjamin could get through the maze of vines and roots was to slither like a garter snake, one of which he had just met.
Near the scat, he noticed four-toed tracks, like cat’s paws but the size of a coffee mug. He looked up and saw the cougar. Or was it a mountain lion? Maybe they were the same thing. It stood about thirty feet up the path, salmon-coloured nose high in the air, sniffing out the intruder.
Benjamin could make out its ribs through the beige coat. The long tail flipped form side to side, sending wet leaves in the air as it swept the ground, and a threatening rumble came out of the white muzzle, followed by a hiss, like from something possessed.
Readers with no clue as to what geocaching is before they read this story will find themselves fascinated by it long before the ending. The fact that it happens outdoors, with contestants well scattered, makes for plenty of tension. But the nail-biting scenes grow exponentially when Barley and Phyllis get onto the kidnapper’s trail.
She flipped the container over. When she pulled back the plastic sliding door, an involuntary wave racked her body, and she dropped the container to the floor. She made a noise like she was trying to scream but couldn’t get it out. Newton ran around to the passenger, opened the door, and picked up the container. He recoiled. Barley ran around to see what it was. He covered his mouth with his hand and thought he might vomit.
On the carpet next to the plastic log was a severed human finger.
The plot is entirely believable, and the characters’ changes are both credible and heart-warming. The story’s pacing is masterful, and The Degrees of Barley Lick will appeal to both boys and girls.
Pam Withers is the award-winning author of 22 young-adult outdoor adventure and sports novels, as well as founder of www.YAdudebooks.ca. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.