The main character of Toby Alone is Toby Lolness, your average 13-year-old thrown into difficult circumstances. Toby and his family live in a huge oak tree, with the upper echelons of society living in the treetop. You see, Toby and the rest of the tree people are only a millimeter tall; the tree they live in is their world. And this world is threatened by one Joe Mitch, an oily character whose only concern is to build huge housing projects by boring through the oak using weevils. When Toby's father, the esteemed scientist Sim Lolness, declares to everyone that the tree is a living thing and that its sap is the "lifeblood" of the mighty oak, the family is forced to live in exile in the Lower Branches.
Toby's adventure begins when his parents are forced to go to prison for not revealing the secret of the tree's sap. Alone and apparently betrayed by his closest friends and neighbors, Toby decides to go rescue his parents. Along the way, he encounters different characters -- a reclusive mother and daughter who provides shelter and companionship, the henchmen of Joe Mitch, just to name a few. Toby also meets the feared Grass People, a race who live on the ground underneath the mighty oak.
Timothée de Fombelle's style of storytelling in Toby Alone is to shift constantly between the past and the present, a technique that can sometimes befuddle readers, especially young adults. And his characters usually appear to be one-dimensional -- either good or bad. The effects renders his narrative to be a bit condescending to his readers. Still, some of the situations that his characters find themselves in are fascinating. His descriptions of pools of water formed by the rains along tree branches are so vivid and captivating. And by writing a cliffhanger for an ending, de Fombelle sets his stage to explore more themes in his second novel.
François Place's illustrations remind one of the beautiful comic strips during the '50s. Even though they're not as detailed as the artworks of today, they remain complementary to de Fombelle's text. It's good that Place's illustrations occur often in the book (about every 3 or 4 pages); they boost de Fombelle's story which can seem flat and uninteresting at certain points.
Toby Alone is another attempt to instill environmental awareness among today's young adults. The idea of the tree as one separate world/community is something that may appeal to children. After all, trees are environment indicators, right? The fewer trees we have, the worse our environment appears to be. But what Toby Alone fails to communicate is that trees are part of a bigger ecosystem -- it's not self-sustaining at all. The characters of Toby Alone may take it upon themselves to save their tree so that they can survive, but they should also learn how their tree plays a role in a much bigger world. Hopefully, this interconnectedness will be explored in the second book, which I'm looking forward to just to find out what happens to Toby.
Read this book if:
- You have a tree that you're particularly attached to.
- You love novels that tackle environment issues.
- You're a closeted tree-hugger.