Like most of the rest of the civilized world, France uses the metric system. So diminutive Toby Lolness, the protagonist in Timothee Fombelle's fantastic Toby Alone (translated from the French by Sarah Ardizzone), is described as "one and a half millimeters tall." That's better than "3/32 of an inch," although I had to wonder how the people of Toby's world, who are confined to the landscape of a single tree, ever figured out what a millimeter was.
Toby's world is one in which water runs like rivers through the canyons created by tree bark's texture, in which birds are almost immeasurable monsters that descend from the sky like a mythical dragons, in which everyone lives on or in or at least fastened to one truly enormous (to the little people anyway) Tree. The Tree provides everything. Of course there are those who appreciate what the tree gives them, and then there are those who just want to exploit the Tree for their own gain. Sound familiar?
Toby, our 1.5 mm hero, is on the run, being hunted by nearly every other citizen of the Tree (all of whom are in the single digits, millimeter-wise). Toby's parents are in prison and some of his closest friends have turned on him. Why? Because Toby’s father is an inventor who has discovered an almost magical source of energy within the Tree's sap, an energy source that, if harvested, may cause irreparable damage to the Tree. Toby's father, more concerned with the health of the Tree than with the benefits his discovery could bring to the Tree's people, refuses to reveal the secrets of the energy source. Led by big time construction contractor Joe Mitch, the people of the Tree turn on Toby's father and drive him into exile amongst the distant lower branches. Down there, Tree people must contend with the savage Grass People who constantly threaten to invade the Tree—at least that’s what Toby has heard. But finally, Joe Mitch considers exile not punishment enough for the Lolnesses and Toby's parents are captured and Toby is left to flee on his own.
Toby's adventure is well-paced and while the narrative jumps around quite erratically in time, its elements unfold organically. The reader sweats and pants along with Toby whether he is fleeing or facing his enemies, in either case relying on superior cleverness to defeat them. Each time someone betrays Toby, the reader feels the knife in his own back. Toby also grows organically, becoming, by the end, an almost entirely different character. And yet the change occurs so subtly that it's difficult to pick out a single point in the narrative where the change takes place. Toby's world is masterfully presented and de Fombelle has no end of fun in finding tree corollaries for many of the technologies that we larger people (measuring approximately 1,753 millimeters) enjoy. While we milk cows, the Tree people milk insect larvae. While we have bulldozers, the little tree people breed and train giant weevils. The reader begins to believe that if people really were that small they could indeed live off the bounty of such a tree. Thousands of species, after all, do exactly that. De Fombelle seems to understand bugs and vegetation well enough to make the story perfectly believable.
I did find some of the themes of the book cause for . . . maybe not concern but at least careful consideration. Toby's father does not exactly act as a censor of information; he promises not to stand in the way of other scientists and inventors who seek the secrets of the Tree's sap. But I wonder what his moral obligations are regarding this information. While of course I agree with the book's environmental message that the Tree should not be mindlessly and limitlessly tapped for its energy, I don't like the idea of an elite individual privy to knowledge which isn't shared with the larger populous. Still, that Toby Alone's plot centers on such an issue is laudable. It's one of the more complex treatments related to science and environmentalism that I've seen in a book for young people and it certainly leaves the door open for debate on what's right.
I also found the violence in the book mildly disturbing. While in general de Fombelle seems to emphasize the use of brains over brawn, and his good and noble characters usually fret over situations in which they must hurt people in order to survive, there are also instances of particularly brutal violence being treated as funny, as a kind of slapstick pratfall which might leave every bone in your body bruised or broken. Again, this inconsistency is at once unsettling and an invitation to the reader to consider the consequences of physical confrontation.
The book has a satisfying ending, but leaves a number of unanswered questions likely to be addressed in the forthcoming sequel, Toby and the Secrets of the Tree.
Crossposted at Critique de Mr. Chompchomp
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