Sally M. Keehn, Gnat Stokes And The Foggy Bottom Swamp Queen (Philomel Books, 2005)

It's 1868, in the mountains of East Tennessee. Twelve-year-old Gnat Stokes, child of an unknown mother, is a magnet for trouble. She longs to be a hero, and prove herself to the folks of Mary's Cove, most of whom think she's just plain trouble. Gnat sees her opportunity for heroism when she finds a message from Goodlow Pryce. Goodlow disappeared nearly seven years earlier, taken by the evil Swamp Queen, Zelda. Now, with the seven years almost up, Zelda plans to sacrifice Goodlow to the devil to remain immortal. Goodlow's true love is the only one who can save him from this fate. With the help of a magic ring and a magic cat named Eatmore Beans, Gnat plans a rescue. Oh, there's a teensy little hitch -- Gnat isn't Goodlow's true love.

Ballad afficianados will recognize the story of Tam Lin here, or something like it. A handsome man, held for seven years, to be given as a tithe to Hell on All Hallow's Eve, unless rescued. Gnat's tale deviates somewhat from the classic ballad, however. Unlike Janet of the ballad, Gnat isn't rescuing the father of her unborn baby. The romantic triangle of Gnat, Goodlow, and Zelda is morphed into more of a trapezoid by the presence of Penelope Drinkwater, Goodlow's actual true love.

Keehn's book is quick-paced, often funny, and delightful throughout. The character of Gnat is well developed. You don't have to read far to feel that you know her; the first person narrative helps that. She is stubborn, brash, opinionated, and almost fearless, but devoted to the people important to her. She wrestles with her conscience and with the stirrings of adulthood ("'...puberty's done clobbered me hard. My head's spinning from it and my heart's on fire.'"). In contrast, the supporting characters are rather sketchy; they are there either to aid or hinder Gnat, and they don't have much depth beyond that. Strangely, the tale doesn't suffer from this. It's Gnat's story, after all.

[Tim Hoke]