Thirteen year-old Charlie Bucktin is sleeping when there is knock on his bedroom window. It is Jasper Jones, the infamous town troublemaker, who roams their Australian community free of parental control. While not friends with Jasper, Charlie is somewhat in awe of him; a good guy who likes to read attracted to the thrill of bad Jasper Jones. Jasper is in deep trouble, he tells him. Charlie is shocked – and rather pleased -- that Jasper would come to him for help. Why me? Because, Charlie figures, he’s probably one of the few people in town he can trust and will not prejudge him as a dangerous delinquent. Jasper needs his help now, in the middle of the night, and he wants Charlie to sneak out of his house and come with him. What should he do?
Jasper leads Charlie far from home and into some deep woods. It is Jasper’s secret place, hidden from the people in his town and the hell in his family. They enter Jasper’s clearing in the woods and there, in the middle, is their classmate from school, Laura Wishart, hanging dead from a tree branch, her face bruised, still in her nightgown.
Needless to say it is a horrifying sight, making Charlie nauseous and confused and wracked with fear. Jasper is desperate. He tells Charlie he did not do this. In fact, he and Laura where a couple, planning to run-off together. If they call the police there is no way, Jasper argues, with his reputation, that he would be treated fairly. He'd be convicted before Laura is buried. No, they cannot call the police; they must cut her down, hide her body, and find out who did this gruesome act. The idea sickens Charlie; he cannot imagine doing this. But they do, tying Laura’s body to a boulder and dropping her into the deep water of a nearby dam. Charlie, whose existence when he went to bed an hour earlier, was downright boring, stands in the dark woods knowing life will never be the same.
The opening of Jasper Jones is beautiful and haunting. There is no doubt that Craig Silvey is a talented writer. (Jasper Jones won the Australian Indie Book of the Year Award.) And you really have no idea where he will take this story. To make Charlie’s predicament even more conflicted, he has a crush on Laura’s sister, Eliza. As the story progresses -- and people are searching the town for the missing Laura -- they become a couple and Charlie is overcome with guilt. He is desperate to tell Eliza about her sister.
There is an unusual subplot to the story with Charlie’s best friend Jeffrey, and his obsession with playing cricket (remember, this is set in Australia). Jeffrey is Vietnamese and the story takes place during the Vietnam War, so he and his family are the victims of terrible prejudice. This part of the plot, as well their banter about cricket and their endless jokes, drag the story down. I’m much more interested in Jasper Jones, Charlie’s own difficult family life, and especially what happened to Laura. There is also a great character in Mad Jack Lionel, a town recluse who Charlie and Jasper think killed a child years ago. Jasper is certain he killed Laura. Even with its faults Jasper Jones is a beautifully written book and a wonderfully original story about a good kid who is thrust into a position to make a horrifying moral decision, reasoning that sometimes we need to do something wrong for a larger right. Did Charlie make the right decision? That’s for each of us to decide.
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