Part Realistic Historical, Part Unbelievable, Spy Thriller
The Troubles of Johnny Cannon
by Isaiah Campbell
Publication Date: October 14, 2014
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
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Johnny Cannon’s got problems. Money is scarce. Martha Macker, the girl he likes, barely knows he’s alive. His best friend Willie is pretty great, but he also happens to be a black kid—which is not exactly acceptable in Cullman, Alabama. His big brother Tommy went to war and vanished. His Pa may be committing treason in their backyard. And just when it seems like things couldn’t get worse, an old family friend—or maybe enemy—appears and shakes everything up. How’s a kid like Johnny supposed to get himself and his family out of a mess that’s stickier than molasses and twice as tangled as a spiderweb?
The year is 1961, and times couldn’t be tougher for twelve-year-old Johnny Cannon of Cullman, Alabama. His mother died in a car accident years ago that left him scarred. When his brother leaves on a military assignment, Johnny’s left to take care of things around the house. While he’s trying his best to pay the bills, his dad is spending all his time holed up in their shed tinkering with radio equipment. If that’s not enough to contend with, racial tensions continue to mount, making things not just difficult but dangerous for Johnny and his friend Willie. On top of that, it turns out the family is tied up in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.
The Troubles of Johnny Cannon does a lot of things well. First off, Johnny is given a strong, original voice touched with genuine wit and a wisdom beyond his years. He has a palpable love for history, which the author successfully employs to thread historical lessons into the text and provide a larger context. Campbell creates a realistic portrayal of two young boys navigating life together across the racial divide of the segregated South. There are many genuinely moving, plausible scenes which help to make these boys tangibly real enough for readers to care for them.
Set against the realism established in the novel’s first half, when later parts of the story place Johnny in increasingly far-fetched scenarios, it’s hard to suspend disbelief. Had the novel begun a bit differently, I might have been able to play along. Instead, the farther Campbell pushed the envelope for Johnny, the more he steered me off course from the emotional connection he worked hard to build. Still, I have to applaud the author for ambitiously cramming a lot of history into his tale — tackling both Civil Rights and The Bay of Pigs. At the end of the day, if readers are willing to accept some over-the-top sequences, they are in for a smart historical novel that winds up reading like an action-packed spy thriller!
— Dawn Teresa
3.5 of 5 Hearts. Part Realistic Historical, Part Unbelievable, Spy Thriller.
The Troubles of Johnny Cannon is essentially a tale of two Johnnys. While the action that takes place in Cullman, Alabama, is authentic and sincere, when Johnny comes face to face with Castro in Cuba, it feels like the ship has steered into entirely different waters. Still, readers who like heavy doses of action may be willing to suspend their disbelief long enough to learn some important lessons.
*Disclosure of Material Connection: I would like to thank Simon & Schuster and Edelweiss for providing me a copy of this title. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”