On a hot summer night in January1 Charlie Bucktin is roused from sleep by Jasper Jones, a biracial outcast, who wants Charlie to help him solve a problem that’s come up.
Sleepily, Charlie follows Jasper through the underbrush…only to wake up completely and abruptly when Jasper brings him to a clearing where the body of Laura Wishart, a Corrigan girl slightly older than Jasper, is hanging from a tree. Jasper and Laura were known to be seeing one another, and as Jasper is the town scapegoat for literally anything gone wrong, he would be accused of the death even absent any other connection between the two. He cannot report it. He cannot admit he has any idea what happened to her. He must keep mum, or he will himself be lynched without trial. He asks Charlie to help him hid the body and then search for the perpetrator, and reluctantly Charlie agrees. Jasper takes Laura down from the tree, and the two carry her body over to the nearby quarry where they tip her into the nearly unfathomable depths.
They go home, and then comes the hard part for Charlie: playing dumb while the town mounts an all-out search for Laura, once they realize she has gone rather than just spent the night with a friend. In a small town such as Corrigan, there’s no escaping the awareness of what’s happened, just as everyone knows one another. Charlie becomes near-obsessed with other serial killers, abusers and untimely deaths, poring over back issues of the newspapers in the library to find out more about what might motivate someone to do this.
Aside from the dreadful knowledge of what’s really happened to Laura Wishart, Charlie lives a thoroughly ordinary life that any thirteen-year-old boy in the United States today would recognize with a few changes wrought by time and distance: he trades crummy pirate jokes with his best friend, Jeffrey Lu; he follows cricket stars avidly; he blushes whenever the girl he has a crush on hoves over the horizon. Complicating this at the moment, however, is that Charlie’s current crush is the sister of the dead girl; as the story progresses, it becomes clear even to an obliviously shy bookish boy like Charlie that she harbors some affection for him as well. More globally, the Vietnam War means that the Caucasian locals, never very accepting of those different themselves, have branched out from pinning everything on Jasper and his alcoholic father and begin to harass Jeffrey’s family: this begins with racial epithets hurled at Jeffrey on the cricket pitch to arson when An Lu’s garden is torched one night.
Secrets abound in the small town of Corrigan, and what happened to Laura is just one of them. This is brought to a point with the additional subplot thrown in, of Mad Jack Corrigan. Every kid in town knows he’ll kill anyone caught stealing his peaches, so of course they all double dog dare each other to go do just that. All the adults know that Lionel killed a girl years ago, and so they simply shun him. Lionel has, needless to say, retreated into the refuge of a hermit; he never speaks to anyone. In the end, we find out that the two main threads in the book are not as unrelated as initially appear, and there are far more secrets than even the adults realize.
As with most slice-of-life novels, the plot is for the most part fairly easy to describe, once one gets past the dead body, what Charlie must do about it and what the town does to search for Laura, presumed missing. This might be considered a YA novel, as it’s narrated from the perspective of a thirteen-year-old boy, but adults will…well, maybe enjoy is the wrong adjective here…be enthralled by? sucked into? the book even more readily.
1no, not science fiction. The book’s set in Australia.