Set in rural Georgia in a time before television, Barbara O’Connor’s The Fantastic Secret of Owen Jester is a kid-centered story of summertime fun. When his father loses his job in a hardware store, Owen Jester and his family are forced to move across town into his grandfather’s house. Owen is “a master of evasion” who does his best every day to escape Earlene, his ailing grandfather’s grumpy, no-nonsense housekeeper.
The highlight of Owen’s summer so far has been the capture of Tooley, “the biggest, greenest, slimiest, most beautiful bullfrog ever to be seen in Carter, Georgia.” Along with his best pals Travis and Stumpy, Owen schemes to find Tooley the best insects and build the best frog cage so he won’t escape. The boy’s summer takes a thrilling turn when in the woods behind his house he discovers a Water Wonder 4000, a two-person submarine.
Caring for a bullfrog and trying to figure out how to move the submarine to the nearest pond is hard enough, but when Viola, Owen’s nosy next-door neighbor, uncovers his secret, his mission intensifies. Who would think a girl, especially one who’s “allergic to pine and grass and dust and dogs and just about every good thing in life,” would know anything about frogs or submarines? But Viola seems to know “everything about everything,” and when she threatens to tattle to authority figures, the boys are forced to include her in their adventures.
With a quiet sensitivity, O’Connor explores the effects of unemployment and relocating and the joys of both longtime companions and new, unexpected friendships. Filled with charm and wonder, this finely crafted novel reminds readers of the mysteries to be found in childhood and the outdoors.