"Cracker Barrel Trouble Shooter"
by Jim Kjelgaard
Jim Kjelgaard, one of my very favorite authors, wrote this little book in 1954. It's a bit of a change of pace from the usual JK book. While it has a great dog character, it is not a "dog story," and while it is set in a rural mountain hamlet and includes a couple of great fishing chapters, it is not his usual "outdoor" story either. Add to this the fact that there is actually a well-rendered romantic sub-plot [with an honest to goodness female!] and it's clear that Cracker Barrel is just "off-trail" enough as a JK venture to make it a perfect cold weather mid-December read.
The story is as charming as some classic old Andy Griffith episode. When college student Bill Rawl’s uncle dies suddenly of an unexpected heart attack, young Bill is left with a little money and the full ownership of a country general store in some unnamed eastern state [judging by Kjelgaard's choice of fictional place names like Elk Shanty and Cannasport it seems very Northeastern... or mayhap what ya might call "Maine-ish"] Bill decides to leave his architectural college studies, as well as his unpromising and painful start toward a boxing career, to instead pack up for the hills and work his "new" old "cracker barrel" store out of its oppressive debts.
After Bill makes the acquaintance of a friendly hunter named Rifle Eye Smith, and an amusing stray blue tick hound called Lamb Chops, [a truly great Kjelgaard canine] he finds that his uncle had left the store in the care of a senile old man and his granddaughter Jan, with whom Bill strikes up an immediate friendship. [Jan is a great character, by the way, and just the kind of lively, witty, believable love interest you'd have bet Kjelgaard couldn't have created.] Soon Bill has encounters with some mysterious enemies as he determines to make his store a financial success. The chapters detailing Bill's strategies for meeting this goal and his struggles to master the arts of fishing and hunting [there is some great writing about angling for Brook trout with grasshopper lures] are quite entertaining, and I couldn't help thinking how much my Libertarian friends would appreciate JK's rollicking emphasis on free trade and gun ownership [old "Rifle Eye," for example, insists on toting his firearm into city stores, with much comical dialogue ensuing, of course.]
The mystery, such as it is, is pretty thin, but this is more than made up for by the humorous and lively tone of the writing. In fact, I have decided that this book is now my "go-to recommendation" for those folks new to Kjelgaard who sometimes ask about a good place to start.
I never saw this book growing up, but I wish I had. It is a really great "Boy's book" that I would no doubt have loved... and I will surely be reading it to my own boy sometime.