Kevin John Scott’s debut middle grade mystery, Frederik Sandwich and the Earthquake that Couldn’t Possibly Be, is the first in a series about the corrupt and mysterious culture of the law-obsessed, overly-orderly town of Frederik’s Hill. Whimsical yet poignant, the novel explores what it means to be an outsider in one’s own hometown, and how institutionalized prejudice contributes to unwelcoming cultures.
And, most importantly, what even the smallest and most unlikely heroes can do to change the world around them.
The novel artfully balances the surreal and absurd elements of its setting against a political climate that echoes painful realities of our contemporary social landscape. Frederik’s Hill is a whimsical place where every store, street, and train platform are named Frederik – where the impossible happens daily on both a small and large scale, such as the passing of “hundreds of cyclists, thousands of them, everywhere” constantly in the streets. Yet it is also a town with a dark political underbelly (literally and figuratively, if you count its secret underground train).
For all its quirky hilarity, Frederik’s Hill is also a land that not-so-subtly rejects foreigners and uses diversity events for PR purposes, all while passing legislature to isolate newcomers and discourage equality. While the novel’s setting is fun and colorful throughout, it is also a critical depiction of our modern political landscape: one that rejects refugees and builds walls along international borders. Scott balances the absurd elements of his setting with those that ring painfully true, creating a fun and accessible work for young readers that maintains a meaningful message and packs a powerful punch.
Given the whimsical and surreal setting, the novel runs the risk of confusing readers early on, even before the meat of the mystery is introduced. What makes the novel work so well is, simply, Scott’s prose. Excepting the prologue, the author’s world-building takes place entirely in-scene and through the characters’ (and therefore readers’) interaction with their surroundings. On a micro-level, Scott develops vivid settings, character and action scenes through choppy sentences that focus on sensory detail over wordy descriptors. For instance, while Frederik searches the town library:
“The door creaked. An older room by far. Bare brick and oak panels. He closed the door behind him, listened for footsteps. Nothing. Safe inside.”
Or, as Frederik rushes to rescue his friend Pernille:
“He grabbed and heaved, and the gate swung open. Tipped him down the steps in a tumble. It made a devil of a noise. He looked around in panic. No one there. He picked himself up and ignored a sore elbow and limped through to the sliding door, a solid slab of steel. Open. Just a little. Just enough.”
The use of sensory detail – whether through Frederik’s vision, smell, or hearing – create a vivid and dynamic setting. The alternating sentence structure helps readers focus on the descriptors while also quickening the pace during tense scenes. It works well for a mystery, and particularly well for one that takes place in such a peculiar setting.
Ultimately, Frederik Sandwich and the Earthquake that Couldn’t Possibly Be is a page-turning, hilarious mystery/adventure about friendship and otherness. As Frederik uncovers the mysteries of his town, he unpacks his own prejudices, including those internalized against himself and his family due to years of exclusion. In the end he learns to celebrate himself and others like him – all with the promise of more mysteries to come, and justice to be served in the town of Frederik Hill.