My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Foiled by Carey Fessler is an enjoyable, fast-paced middle grade novel. Set in the 1947 at the time of the Roswell incident in New Mexico, it reminded me of stories from my own youth, in particular “Escape from Witch Mountain,” which also had two school-age kids on the run from government agents and hints of flying saucers, aliens, and magical mind-reading powers.
The plot is basically a road trip, as two young friends, Kate and Billy, come into possession of a piece of magic foil that enables them to read other people’s thoughts. It is soon revealed that this foil came from aliens who crash-landed at Roswell, and a government agent named Falco wants to recover the foil and hush up everyone who saw or heard about it. Kate and Billy take matters into their own hands and run away to Kate’s grandfather’s house out in the Arizona desert. The action never lets up, and the kids manage to repeatedly outsmart and outrun the cartoonish Falco.
Rather than making it a buddy book aimed solely at boys, Fessler gives us a strong, resourceful heroine in tomboyish Kate. Strong girl protagonists are not particularly remarkable these days, and I enjoyed that aspect of the book. But this treatment felt a little anachronistic set in 1947. As a Roswell skeptic, I also found that aspect of the story to be somewhat dated. And I admit to being annoyed at how the adults were portrayed—or not portrayed, as the case may be. They were mostly absent like Kate and Billy’s parents, in need of rescue like Grandpa Clyde, or bumbling idiots like Falco. This too reminded me of cartoons I used to watch on Saturday morning, in which the villain yells as he is led away in handcuffs, “I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!”
But as I read, I realized that this old-fashioned quality is both the book’s weakness and its strength. In my interactions with 21st century tweens, I find them to be more street-smart and savvy than either Kate or Billy, at least in their imaginative lives. I suspect that kids who have found the Horcruxes with Harry, Ron, and Hermione, who have destroyed the Death Star and gone to the dark side with Anakin and Luke, who have slain vampires with Buffy, who have survived Camp Half-blood, who are really from Wakanda, and who build and occupy their own fantasy worlds with Minecraft and Fortnite, are going to find Kate and Billy’s sojourn a little bit white bread and tame, even if it does involve flying an airplane by yourself.
These same kids, however, could be pleasantly surprised if they temporarily put their digital pleasures aside in favor of the analog, tactile excitement of the journey described in this book. The protagonists survive by their own wits and manage to accomplish their goals. Kate’s relationship with her grandfather is sweet, as is her loyalty to her parents and Billy. Her life of fishing and stargazing evokes a simpler, more optimistic time when anything was possible.