At first glance life appears idyllic for Carter Johnson. It's 1953 and he lives on a stretch of Virginia beach named Willoughby Spit, swimming and dreaming of superheroes. He pretends to be Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, who can breathe both water and air. He's still a kid, but is starting to steal sly looks at his older sister's friend.
The tension builds as author Jonathan Scott Fuqua gently lays out Carter's ocean of worries. The Johnsons live in the shadow of the Hampton Roads naval base, and Carter worries about Communist invasions and nuclear bombs. What's more, his father is dying of an unspecified ailment caused by his military service.
At first Carter doesn't believe his father is dying, but slowly, this realization sinks in. As Carter teeters on the edge of childlike dreaming and more grown-up understanding, he comes up with a plan. He mistakenly believes his father has given up on living, so he decides to show him a miracle. He convinces himself that his mother's family actually comes from the sea, from Atlantis, and that he can swim across the Chesapeake Bay to the distant shore. Once his father hears of this heroic feat, Carter reasons, his father will know that anything is possible, even conquering his own illness. In truth, Carter's father has not given up on life at all. Instead, he desperately wants to leave Carter and his sister, Minnie, with happy memories, instead of images of a sick, dying man.
Fuqua brings the turmoil to a dramatic, yet believable conclusion that resolves the fears and conflicting visions of Carter and his father.
Fuqua, a military brat who spent his teenage years in Norfolk, Virginia, obviously writes from his heart. With its beach scenes, amusement park rides and glimpses of life in Cold War America, The Willoughby Spit Wonder is a great summer read for middle schoolers. In the end, with the help of his father, Carter learns to accept reality while still holding onto his dreams. As he advises his sister, "Minnie, if you don't wish big, you shouldn't wish at all."