An unexpected summer of heat, snakes, and growing up

Eleven-year-old Mitch Valentine thought he was going to have the perfect summer. He and his best friend, Tick, had a long list of activities planned: Watch monster movies. Skateboard. Take long bike rides. Swim in the backyard pool.

But his parents had other plans for the summer of 1963. Mitch's dad, an Air Force officer, would be training at the Pentagon. So Mitch, his brother, and mom would leave their California home and stay with relatives in Pitkin, La.

Mitch just knew his life was ruined, especially since the house in Louisiana had no TV or air conditioning, the nearby town was tiny, and his cousins, in their bare feet and overalls, looked at Mitch as if he were odd.

How many days before he'd hear from Tick?

So begins "The Cottonmouth Club," a generally well-paced and sometimes humorous story by first-time novelist and sixth-grade teacher Lance Marcum.

Soon enough, the cousins start sharing adventures, from corncob battles to trying to outrun a bull (bad idea) and giving Mitch's collie a haircut (really bad idea). Mitch tries to use a rope swing (big disaster), develops a crush on pretty Skeeter, who has a boyfriend, and tries to join some of the older local boys on their late-night excursions.

To really be one of them, though, he must gain admittance to the Cottonmouth Club, which requires completing some dangerous stunts.

Mitch, a likable character throughout, eventually realizes that the popular kids aren't always the nicest. And through hard experience he learns to think for himself when faced with temptations and not to judge people by their clothes or accents.

Some parents might wish the book emphasized that first point a little more, since "The Cottonmouth Club" is focused more on action - and recounting every detail - than introspection. The story lags in places and has too many cultural references, and like many first novels it could have been more focused.

Most of that won't matter to its intended audience of adolescent boys, though. This is the story of an ordinary kid who has an unforgettable vacation he can brag about for months.

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