The Alex Crow

Book review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
The Alex Crow Book Poster Image
Orphan refugee finds new family in beautifully bizarre tale.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Smith peppers historical and factual details into his prose, so teens learn things even if they don't realize it. For example, there really were many failed Arctic expeditions in the late 1800s; there was a Great Blizzard of 1888 that hit New York City and the rest of the Northeast; there are tent cities run by the United Nations refugee agency (although it's never mentioned exactly where Ariel is from) in many war-torn countries; and, of course, there are plenty of sleepaway camps that divide cabins into a summer-long competition for bragging rights and prizes.

Positive Messages

The Alex Crow features many messages, mostly about storytelling and survival. As Ariel explains, we keep all our stories -- the good and the awful -- shelved in our personal (mental and emotional) libraries until we find the courage to share and lend (and burden) others with them. The important part is how we communicate the best and the worst of us through our personal narratives. Words have power, and sharing words takes courage. Ariel also reveals how surviving isn't something to applaud -- it's the most natural, selfish thing to want to keep on living at all costs -- but with survival comes the weight of knowing you lived when you could have died. Ultimately, it's these stories and the friendships and brotherhood we form by sharing them that keep us human.

Positive Role Models & Representations

The three main boys, Ariel, Max, and Cobie, are realistically flawed (they drink, smoke weed, and tease one another), but they also are brave and clever and protect one another.

Violence

Ariel survives his entire village being massacred by being shot at gunpoint or covered in poison gas. Later, he hears terrible stories from people he meets, such as about a brother who was shot in the face for questioning the existence of God. A teen recalls being beaten and raped in a refugee camp. A group of Arctic explorers dies of starvation and sickness, and then one of them goes insane and stabs and shoots four people. A woman passes out after losing blood from a cut to her leg. A mentally ill man shoots at three teen boys. A teen defends a younger boy by stabbing and injuring two assailants. A man is blown up, as is a bridge.

Sex

Lots of masturbation references. At camp, one bunkmate is heard "jerking off," to the horror of all the other campers. One character says he's "horny all the time" and obsessively comes up with creative and descriptive euphemisms for masturbation such as "deporting troublesome foreigners," "unclog the ketchup bottle," and "drop off our babies at the fire station." In the late 19th century, an adult man describes his "corrupt" "companionship" with another man in a way that makes it clear they were lovers.

Language

Strong language includes "f--k," "f--kheads," "f--kers," "s--t," "s--twads," "a--holes," "dick," religious exclamations, and more.

Consumerism

A few brands featured, including Volvo and Safeway.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Teens smoke weed, and they drink beer and vodka at summer camp. Boy soldiers as young as 10 smoke cigarettes in Ariel's war-torn home village.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Alex Crow is another bizarre, time- and genre-bending coming-of-age story by Andrew Smith, who won a 2015 Michael L. Printz Honor for Grasshopper Jungle. Although Smith once again tackles incredibly tough topics such as civil war, refugee camps, immigration, and bioethics, this is, like all his books, a tale about self-discovery and storytelling: what it costs to tell others about your painful truths. It's also a story about history (and life) repeating itself. There's less sex (although plenty of references to self-pleasure) in this novel than in his others, and there's a noticeable absence of female characters, because the stories are set mostly in an all-boys camp or on an all-male expedition. The language is strong (including "s--t" and f--k"), but it's authentic, and Smith is so good that this is the ideal book to introduce to teen boys who think there are no cool books to read.

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What's the story?

Award-winning author Andrew Smith's THE ALEX CROW, as in his previous book Grasshopper Jungle, is not easy to describe in a sentence or two. It's mostly about Ariel, an orphan who survived a massacre in his village only to end up terrorized in a refugee camp and eventually adopted by the Burgess family living in Sunday, West Virginia. The parents -- Jake, top-level scientist for a secretive research group, and his unflappable wife, Natalie -- have sent Ariel and his adoptive brother, Max, who's only 16 days older than Ariel, to an all-boys, "no screens" sleepaway camp. Ariel's story is interwoven with diary entries from a doctor on a doomed 1880s Arctic expedition and an insane psychopath called the "melting man," who believes Joseph Stalin is ordering him to blow up a Beaver King. Oh, and there's also the Burgess' pet, a reanimated crow named Alex.

Is it any good?

Smith is a master at detailing the enormous intellectual and psychological swings of male adolescence. In this case, he focuses on the refugee experience of 15-year-old Ariel, who has experienced the worst humanity has to offer; eight weeks at an unpleasant summer camp for boys without video games, computers, or television is nothing compared with hiding from a massacre in a refrigerator or dealing with amoral "orphan kings" in a refugee camp. His story is the heart of The Alex Crow and by far the most immersive. In his acknowledgements, Smith credits his English-as-a-second-language students for inspiring Ariel, and it's obvious, because Smith never judges what Ariel does or doesn't do to survive. Ariel lives through brutal situations with his dignity and strength of character.

The other two stories (and that pesky suicidal crow) are important to the plot, but they're not as heartbreakingly real. The doctor, one of very few to survive an Arctic expedition, learns what it's like to allow something horrible to happen for his benefit, and the "melting man" is a murderous and insane individual who honestly believes Joseph Stalin is talking to him. The 19th-century doctor's story is compelling, but the melting man's can be difficult to read, even though Smith imbues it with occasional humor. Ultimately, this is Ariel's story, one of figuratively dying and being born again. With his brother, Max, a wordsmith who spends most of the book coming up with clever euphemisms for masturbation, and bunkmate Codie, a natural leader who can convince anyone of anything, Ariel finally rediscovers the idea of friendship and brotherhood, something he hasn't felt since the day the rebels came to his village and killed everyone he knew and loved. Smith's books might not be easy to read, but they're easy to love and impossible to forget.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the importance of storytelling. Why is telling your story -- the horrible and the wonderful -- such a scary act? Why do people need to tell their stories?

  • Discuss the various genres of the book. It's a coming-of-age story, but there are sci-fi, immigrant's-tale, and historical-drama elements as well. What did you think of the book tackling so many issues?

  • Some critics have called Andrew Smith the new Kurt Vonnegut. What do you think about this comparison? How do Smith's books defy genre rules?

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