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by Jim Guhl
University of Wisconsin Press, September 2018
305 pages
ISBN: 0299319105

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Eleven Miles to Oshkosh is a charming YA murder mystery featuring as protagonist a skinny high school sophomore who is the frequent target of bullies. The novel evokes the sights and sounds of 1972, as winter comes to Neenah, Wisconsin.

Dramatis personae: Del Fenwick, aka "Minnow," a student at Shattuck High, Wisconsin, wants to know why his father, a law enforcement officer, was murdered; Del's mom, ill with multiple sclerosis and grieving the murder of her husband; Grandpa Asa, her father, who has bought his grandson a pair of Eaglewing Steel-toed Boots to take care of the bullies; Steve Hawkins, friend to Del, creator of wild inventions, such as Rocket Shoes, that get him into trouble, instigator of The Volcano Prank; Randy Schnell and Mark Marmotti, high school buddies to Del who protect him from the bullies and help with The Volcano Prank; Larry Buskin and Leon Dinsky, said bullies, whose modus operandus, called "Spotting Out," involves throwing the victims' books on the floor and kicking them down the school hallway; Opal Parsons, the first African-American student in the high school and a target of the bullies; Mrs. Parsons, Opal's mother and a nurse, who has experience marching for justice and withstanding attacks by racists in Selma, Alabama; Sam Parsons, Opal's father, a machinist who makes a good living in local industries; Rhonda Glass, the fattest girl in Shattuck High, with whom Del is paired for a class project, and about whom he comes to change his mind; Mrs. Borger, wise English teacher who helps her students achieve justice; Wolf, homeless Native American man whom Del meets, and who is drowned in the freezing Fox River as white fisherman watch him struggle; Deputy William Fenwick, hearty backslapper, dangerous bully, and something more; The Cadillac Man, shadowy figure seen exchanging something with Deputy Fenwick, and a possible lead for Del's father's death.

Del, the amateur sleuth in ELEVEN MILES TO OSHKOSH, is a normal high school kid in Neenah, Wisconsin. Fall is advancing, the Nixon-McGovern race is on, the football season has started with Neenah down, as usual, and duck hunting season is about to open. Del makes money by diving for old fishing lures in the Fox River and Lake Winnebago and then selling them in the flea market; he also has a paper route delivering the Hoot Owl all over town on his bicycle. With his high school buddies, Del and his friends plan to make a baking-soda and vinegar volcano on the football field of their rival, Menasha, during the next big game. The volcano will go off at just the right moment to embarrass their rivals. Del ropes his grandpa Asa, always good for helping teenagers be themselves, into providing transportation and tactical advice for their prank.

Del's family carries a couple of burdens likely to make one question the world's goodness: Del's father has been murdered by the Highway 41 Killer, and his mother is frequently made tired by grief and by the advance of multiple sclerosis. Del seeks the counsel of the local pastor and talks to Asa and to his friend Mark. Mark suggests that the visit the site of Del's father's death; Grandpa Asa provides the wheels for the trip to the site. The boys and the grandfather set the wheels of justice in motion, since the sheriff's office does not appear to be interested. Evidence that the boys find at the murder site indicate that no forensic examination was made at the site, a lack that seems to point to something fishy about the county sheriff's office

To force the wrongdoers into the open, Mrs. Parsons helps organized a good, old-fashioned Civil Rights march. At first a tiny ragtag bunch join, but marches become media events that force the sheriff to play his hand, and the killer to play his.

Eleven miles is how many miles the Civil Rights marchers cover, from the murder site back to town. The investigation unwinds as the ice fishermen set up their shacks on Lake Winnebago, Del falls for Opal, but she goes to the prom with Mark, the baking-soda volcano goes off with a perfectly splendid effect, but the boys are called into the principal's office the next morning, and Del goes on his first duck hunt with Asa. Eleven Miles is a charming portrait of a place and a time. To me today, prom dates and 50-yard-line volcanoes, "spotting out" and delivering a newspaper by bicycle are filled with an innocence and a personal childhood freedom that I feel we can never recoup, not in my lifetime, not in yours. But there is murder here, and it's fueled by drug money: the dog is already in the manger.

Dr. Cathy Downs is Professor of English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville and a fan of the well-fashioned whodunit.

Reviewed by Cathy Downs, October 2018

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