Right after the tornado hit Joplin, Bill Cairns came to help with clean up. He also submitted his poetry to Storm Country, and he then he called me asking where to take a load of books he wanted to bring to ravaged Joplin. Then his tornado poem was chosen to be put to music and sung in the rotunda of the Missouri Capitol. Now Bill has just published a humdinger of a young adult novel titled Into the Hornets’ Nest.
When I met Bill in Jefferson City, he told me he was a carpenter, but he said nothing about writing a book. Now after reading his YA publication, I see that his carpentry skills served him well because he really did a fine job constructing this book. His metaphors are strong and vivid without being stretched a bit too far. “Red molasses flowed like lava around splinters of blood” describes the fatal wound Jesse’s horse receives near battle. His verb choices are excellent, moving the action and story along at a strong clip just like a sharp saw blade. The tale is told with intense scenes full of developments that keep the reader turning pages.
Into the Hornets’ Nest is set in the Civil War. Jesse, the main character, is a saucy character and very likable. He suffers from a piercing case of sibling rivalry with his older brother. When Wallace goes off to fight, he is killed, and Jesse later begins an odyssey that takes him South out of Yankee territory, shows him the horrors of war, and introduces him to the evils of slavery.
Although the book displays mannerisms and details of the Civil War era, the story is about human relationships universal themes. For example, the sibling rivalry Jesses feels is an honest and normal reaction of little brothers in any time period. The author is careful not to write “Yankee” or “Rebel” too often, but to expose the universal pain and anguish experienced by both sides in any war. Bill puts leveling words into a doctor’s mouth as he explains to Jesse, “You have winners and losers in every war, son. Some deserve it, some don’t. But sometimes it takes a war to set the world right.” I like this. We don’t live in black and white worlds, but often we have to be big enough to choose the lesser of two difficult positions.
While adults will find it an enjoyable read, Into the Hornets’ Nest is a great book for younger readers. Bill’s book has wonderful potential for thought-provoking class discussions on race, war, family, prejudice, honesty and much more. I hope some discerning teachers will pick up this YA and utilize it in class. Both boys and girls can enjoy this valuable read.