Tamaya Dhilwaddi and Marshall Walsh walk to and from school everyday. But when bully Chad Hilligas challenges Marshall to a fight, Marshall leads Tamaya into the woods to avoid it. They get lost and when Chad shows up all three find trouble in the form of mysterious fuzzy mud that has the potential to put their town, and maybe even the world, at risk.
The last Louis Sachar book I read was Holes, and that was back in like… fourth grade maybe. A long time ago. But what has always stuck with me about Holes was how effortlessly all the strands of the story come together. So when I heard Sachar was at BEA with a new ARC, I made a point of ensuring I was in line to get it (and get it signed – he was quite friendly btw).
I was not disappointed. Fuzzy Mud has dual plots. The first being the story of Tamaya, Marshall, and Chad, and the second follows the US Senate Committee as they discuss SunRay Farms – the makers of ergies, organisms that act as alternative fuel and make up the fuzzy mud. Sachar weaves these to story lines together masterfully, letting the Senate Committee story line inform the reader about what’s really happening to Tamaya and the boys, since they do not have any knowledge of ergies or SunRay Farms themselves. This technique drives the plot forward and makes the novel a quick read (though it is also short to begin with), while also setting up the environmental/ecological message of the novel.
The children seem rather realistic to me. Their concerns about fitting in and having friends ring true. As a person with a conscience easily inclined to guilt and who grew up being a rule-follower, I related quite well to Tamaya. She desires to do good, but is plagued by the label “goody-goody,” leaving her to wonder when the rules changed and when being good became bad. I enjoyed reading along as she discovers that doing what is right is always important, even when it requires rule breaking.
The two boys were also enjoyable to read. Like Tamaya, Marshall finds himself outside of the social circle of his grade and struggles for acceptance. Chad is the reason for Marshall’s social exile, but is dealing with issues in school and at home (it’s a classic bullying framework in which the bully acts out because of mistreatment elsewhere – perhaps not the most original, but that’s kind of how it works, right?). Their relationship develops throughout the novel as they are forced to work together and get to know each other. It ties in themes of understanding, compassion, and forgiveness.
(Side note: I kind of wonder at the lack of technology present among the children characters. There’s no real talk of cell phones or social media, which might have added more to both Tamaya’s and Marshall’s feelings of exclusion and could have allowed exploration into cyber bullying. But perhaps that would have ended with the novel becoming didactic or overly complicated. It is, after all, a story about children getting lost in the woods.)
The idea of the alternative fuel organisms is definitely worth exploring and Sachar gives the story a sci-fi feel by doing so. He raises questions on the ethics of creating life just to destroy it and on safety procedures and potential hazards. Yet he does so without being preachy.
Bonus points go to the illustrations depicting the ergies, which were so subtle that I didn’t even notice them until they were pointed out to me.
Final verdict: Fuzzy Mud is a compelling read with an interesting blend of sci-fi thriller and children’s adventure. Sachar does a good job of weaving together story lines and depicting characters with relatable problems. Though I think the novel could have been longer, some of its strength likely comes from its compact form (could have been cool to see more on how the outbreak was contained and more on the government and company’s reactions to it – but that would have taken the focus away from the children and made this a different story, I suppose).