This is my first Choose Your Own Adventure review since early September, the last having been Shannon Gilligan’s The Case of the Silk King. After doing this book, I may need another three months to recover from it.
Forest of Fear by Louise Munro Foley (illustrated by Ron Wing)
Published: March 1986
Number in the CYOA Series: 54
This is the third CYOA book I’ve reviewed by Louise Munro Foley. First was 1983’s The Lost Tribe, which was pretty decent; The Mystery of Echo Lodge earned a C grade from me, and Danger at Anchor Mine scraped by with a D minus. Ms. Foley is an excellent writer; I respect her as an author and a teacher. I was really hoping after two misfires that her next book would bounce back. I really wanted to like Forest of Fear, and it’s much more fun to do positive CYOA reviews than negative ones. But this book…is just…terrible.
The setting of the book is one of those that seems hard to screw up. You’re spending summer vacation with yet another Adventurous Relative®, this one your uncle Jason, who lives in an abandoned ranger station perched high in the trees of an inaccessible forest in Maine. Now, I’ve been to old ranger stations, and let me tell you, they’re creepy–high up on platforms (so the rangers could spot forest fires), these places are very atmospheric and full of inherent danger. This is a terrific idea. You’re just arriving on a bus, chatting with some old timer who warns you that the danger of forest fire this year is very high and how silly it was for the Forest Service to close down the ranger station that your uncle is now living in. Danger, Will Robinson! Jason picks you up. He’s out of sorts, a bit grumpy. A writer, he’s working on a novel involving an old Indian legend called the Spirit Tree, whose branches are said to harbor the spirits of dead people. Jason was told about the tree by an old Indian named Henry Madokawando, who…
Hey, wait a minute. Aren’t we supposed to get to a choice here? This is, after all, an interactive book, right? Well, you’d think so, but Forest of Fear has the single longest exposition of any CYOA book I’ve come across: eight different page-turn directions before you come to a choice. And despite all of this exposition there is still no sense of what the plot is going to be. Your first choice is whether to read Jason’s book surreptitiously (he told you not to), or to go find this Henry character to tell you about it. But the stakes involved in this choice are so low as to make it arbitrary. You’re not in danger. There is no mystery to solve. The story has no conflict. You’re curious about the Spirit Tree. That’s it.
In the 20th century, ranger stations were often perched on tall lookout towers, like this one, to spot forest fires. Great idea for the setting of an adventure book, right?
At this inauspicious juncture the plot splits off, one into a virtually incoherent story where you seem to go back in time and meet the residents of a nearby long cabin who died of cholera, or got struck by lightning, or something; and a second plot where you come across two escaped convicts who are planning to rob the general store. Wait, escaped convicts? As soon as I saw this plot I realized it was quite possibly an act of desperation. We’ve got a perilous locale, a foreboding forest and a danger of forest fires, but suddenly you’re trying to foil a petty robbery. The fact that the proprietor of the general store is a 90-year-old woman who outwits and run circles around the crooks in most of the subsequent plots doesn’t make them seem any more dangerous or menacing. It’s just dullsville. Even in what are supposed to be action sequences the temperature barely reaches “alive.”
The failure of this book, I think, is primarily on the conceptual level. It’s not the writing, which is actually quite clear, evocative and eloquent; as I said Ms. Foley is an excellent writer. It’s the plotting. The setting and situations just aren’t used to their full potential. Case in point: if you have an adventure story taking place at an old ranger station, you’ve simply got to have someone hanging perilously off the railing or a chase up and down the ladders. Otherwise, the setting is wasted. If you have a character on page two warning that the danger of forest fires is catastrophically high, your plot had better involve catastrophic forest fires. Only one of the plot threads makes good on the forest fire scenario. The stuff about the Spirit Tree and Indian legends is much more prominent, but none of it is really scary or all that menacing. Even the title, Forest of Fear, is misleading. Forest of Mild Consternation might be more apposite.
A character warns you at the beginning of Forest of Fear that this is going to happen. But it happens only once. Another missed opportunity.
Ms. Foley also does not engage fully with the interactive nature of a Choose Your Own Adventure book, which was a problem I noticed in Danger at Anchor Mine. Out of 116 pages there are only 16 on which you make a choice. By contrast there are 59 pages where you’re instructed to turn to another page, with no choice at all, and that doesn’t include endings. As the reader and “star of the story,” you’re given surprisingly little to do. I think the main story Ms. F. wanted to tell was about the Spirit Tree. Perhaps she should have done it in a straightforward narrative instead of trying to make it a Choose Your Own Adventure story.
I tried really hard to find something I liked about this book. Aside from the idea of the ranger station–which is cool, although totally under-utilized–I couldn’t do it. Skip this book. Even Vampire Express was better.
Grade: D minus
Next up: Debra Lerme Goodman sounds The Trumpet of Terror.