A! Magazine for the Arts

Gloria Oster

Gloria Oster

Book Review: "Swamped" by Joe Tennis

January 30, 2019

Take teenage angst plus hormones; add a daring trek into unknown territory. What will this familiar combination add up to? In Joe Tennis’s young adult novella “Swamped!,” the sum of these parts yields a surprising number of complex ideas that underscore how confusing navigating the landscape between innocence and knowledge can be for young adults.

When Tom, Chris, Justine and Apple Jelly (Tom’s nickname for the narrator) break an oar after setting off in a row boat, the conflicts begin. The external conflicts mirror the internal ones as the lost teens question how to find the campground they left from, face an impending storm, abandon the false security of the boat and even encounter snakes. The struggle over who should lead the foursome does not provide an answer to the question of how to get back to the starting point or produce a clear-cut leader. Thus, the fun begins to unravel.

Apple Jelly displays appropriate teenage disdain for all of his compatriots. As hormones, existential crises and nature’s indifference come into play, Apple Jelly is forced to examine and re-examine his values.

These are weighty topics that arise naturally from the actions and words of the characters. Early in the tale, Tom, the philosopher and naturalist of the group, declares,” All of life is a school…. We’re all learning from each other.” Apple Jelly at that moment refuses to believe that, especially from Tom, and doesn’t hesitate to let him know.

As literary tradition has it in most cultures, traveling into a dark and dangerous place where societal rules don’t apply accelerates the maturation process and makes the main character stronger. Apple Jelly comes to this point declaring,” At last I found my eyes wide open, I felt completely awake. I could finally see the world outside of the swamp.”

Apple Jelly’s development is the yardstick by which each of the other characters is measured. All are interesting because of their different motivations for taking the journey and for the different ways each confronts the dilemma. Each sees the world through a different lens. Is one lens better or more correct than the other? How far does one’s forgiveness stretch? How does a person develop confidence in others and in oneself? What role does nature play in our lives? All these are excellent questions readers confront as the novella progresses.

“Swamped!” could be a useful tool for teens and adults to read together to spark discussion about acquiring self-understanding in a world full of different people and ideas.

If “eyes wide open” are required for leaving the dark behind as most readily believe, “Swamped!” is a reminder that coming-of-age and finding the light even briefly is not an easy process. The trials these characters encounter provide proof. As chockful as this story is with important ideas, the suspense alone will keep you reading.

Oster is a graduate of University of Tennessee, East Tennessee State University who taught high school English in Sullivan County. She recently retired from the School of Education at King University. She is a member of the A! Magazine for the Arts committee.