Walker's Crossing

Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Author, Amy Crehore, Illustrator Atheneum Books $16 (240p) ISBN 978-0-689-82939-0

Tackling the subject of militia movements in this timely novel, Naylor (Sang Spell; Shiloh) creates a sympathetic character in her protagonist, Ryan Walker, a Wyoming seventh grader who tentatively explores the weapons-bearing, government-hating, profoundly racist Mountain Patriots Association, which his older brother has joined. What's daring (and skillful) about Naylor's approach is that Ryan doesn't automatically reject the group's doctrines: ""Half the time, anyway, they made sense. The rest, Ryan wasn't sure."" The stage for Ryan's susceptibility is carefully set: Ryan's mother, badly undereducated, favors the older brother, Gil, and is proud when Gil is made a brigade commander; Ryan's father, in constant pain from a disabling injury, is slow to make his views known; and Ryan, unusually tall, has never fit in at school. Ryan's essential decency triumphs early on, but at some cost; Naylor keeps the stakes high for readers as she knits an atmosphere of impending tragedy. Details about ranch life and the rural setting add color, while Ryan's well-grounded ambition to be a cowboy creates a classic American-dream motif that subtly opposes the militiamen's creeds. The issues and the characters are developed fairly and the plot builds solidly past a surprise climax to a credibly optimistic resolution. Ages 10-14. (Sept.)