The fast-paced adventure stories that were once such a staple of children's literature have now largely gone the way of the frontiers that inspired them. It is an unfortunate loss. Current dramas tend to favor Angst over action, as many authors search for relevance instead of buried treasure or a noble quest.
"The Half-A-Moon Inn," though, returns to the earlier tradition. It is an unassuming book with a straightforward plot: A mute boy named Aaron leaves home to look for his mother, who has not returned as expected from a short trip. Much snow has fallen in the intervening hours, and Aaron fears for her safety. He begins his search with an innocent confidence, and only later, after he is lost, does he realize the scope of his peril.
Were he able to speak, his predicament might be easily solved, but since he cannot, his fate is uncertain. As things develop, he will need all of his wits to save him from Miss Grackle, the witchlike proprietress of the Half-A-Moon Inn. She makes a tidy living from robbing her guests, and Aaron is forced to become her accomplice. How he is extricated from her clutches is told with a light tone and a quick tempo, while the murky illustrations capture the spirit of the grim settings.
Most significant, though, is Fleischman's handling of Aaron's handicap.Stories about children with various afflictions too often wallow in well-meaning didacticism. Fleischman makes neither too much nor too little of Aaron's muteness. He simply incorporates it into the tale, and any message about how resourceful a handicapped person can be is enhanced as a result.
The message of "Prisoners of the Scrambling Dragon" is a different one, but it, too, is melded into a story of intrigue, this time historically grounded in the early 19th-century China trade. Thirteen-year-old Sam Dwight has signed aboard his uncle's ship bound for China, having decided that a sailor's life is the life for him. The narrative itself opens in a ship's hold off the China coast, where Sam relates that he is a prisoner. His friend, Hawk, a former slave, lies nearby. While Sam waits for Hawk to regain consciousness, he relives the events that led to this impasse.
F. N. Monjo clearly researched the period thoroughly, and Sam's memories are salted with information about customs, cargoes, and ports of call. The book's illustrations try to enhance Sam's travels, but though they have some of the flavor of scrimshaw, they are not graceful enough to complete the effect.
Underneath the glamour of the voyage, however, lies a sobering truth; many of the china-bound clippers did a large trade in opium, from which came hefty profits. Sam's realization of this tempers his enthusiasm for the trip (not to mention the fact that opium smuggling is the cause of his present plight). Once Hawk awakens, the story proceeds with their efforts to escape, with more information liberally supplied along the way. "Prisoners of the Scrambling Dragon" is not an entirely smooth mixture of tale and travelogue, but it is still an exciting and thoughtful look at a past era that bears remembering.