John Grisham. Theodore Boone: The Activist. New York: Dutton, 2013. Print.
John Grisham is one of the world’s most popular writers. His legal thrillers have sold millions. His work is clever and entertaining. A few years ago, he began a series geared toward the Young Adult reader, Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer.
The Activist is the fourth installment, but the first that we have read. It uses a tried and true formula that we loved when we were young, and no doubt today many youths would enjoy the stories of Theo (only his mother calls him Teddy) Boone.
The formula is very similar to that of the Hardy Boys, and by extension, Nancy Drew. Frank and Joe Hardy’s father was a detective. Nancy Drew’s father was a lawyer. They learned from their fathers and seemed to somehow get involved in cases their respective fathers were working on. There was some kind of mystery and some kind of nasty jam. In the end, though, the problem was solved and our protagonists survived to solve another mystery. And they all needed their friends—or as they used to put it in editions from the fifties and sixties: their chums.
So Theo Boone is the son of lawyers. His parents form the law offices of Boone and Boone. Mom does divorce work and Dad does real estate. Mom is in court a lot. Dad never is. Theo’s scruffy Uncle Ike Boone is a disbarred lawyer who still does legal legwork of all kinds. And though Theo knows a lot of law for his age and is the best debater at school, he needs his friends as much as we all need our friends.
Just as the Hardy Boys knew a lot about solving mysteries (fingerprints and other clues), so Theo knows more than the average thirteen-year-old about law. The legal issue in The Activist is eminent domain. At one point Theo cites a Supreme Court case which said, in his words:
“Just because the government is big enough, strong enough, rich enough, and powerful enough, doesn’t mean it has the right to take land from its citizens.” (281)
In this case, the citizens include the family of Hardie Quinn, one of Theo’s best friends. The Quinns own a large farm that has been in the family for over a century. It contains cropland, woods, a small river, and the family cemetery. The state and county are planning to build a highway bypass around the city of Strattonville and right through the Quinns’ land.
Some surveyors give Theo, Hardie, and a third friend a hard time and beat Theo’s dog within an inch of its life. This naturally gets Theo mad, but one of the big backers of the highway project is land speculator Joe Ford, who has been Mr. Boone’s client for years. It gets even more complicated. Theo and his friends launch a Facebook campaign against the development with the help of the Strattonville Environmental Council and a newspaper reporter of questionable ethics.
Indeed, much of The Activist is about ethics. Neither side in the highway controversy is lily white. Still, there are a lot of positive things taken from this tale. Unlike so many YA protagonists, Theo lives with both of his parents. While he does not always like what they do, he respects them. Theo also has a conscience. When even Uncle Ike tells him he ought not to do something he wants to do, Theo knows it would be unethical, but it sure would make the problem go away quicker.
There is also a great sense of loyalty: to the family, to friends, to your school, to your team, even to God. No, this hardly portrays life as perfect, but it does suggest that people of character can make a difference. And, as much as I enjoyed all the lawyer jokes in nineties, Grisham does suggest that even the law can be an honorable profession.
P.S. We listened to part of this on the audio recording which was done by Richard Thomas. Thomas’s reading is excellent. He is a very good actor. While he is best known even today for playing John-Boy Walton, he was the best Hamlet this reviewer ever seen—and I have seen many of them over the years.