by Angela Griffin
Maybe every small town is at the mercy of its young who itch to leave, but, never realizing their power, almost always stay. This is certainly the case in Mudlick, where teen rivals Ivy Simmons and Jimmy Doggins—along with some creative topiary—hold the hopes and attentions of their hometown as they vie for the title of Junior Mr. Mayor.
The town committee—in a tone that is part casual historian, part local ordinance—endeavors to “set the record straight” about a recent Junior Mr. Mayor race and ensuing scandal. The Committee’s meandering narrative is punctuated by terrible advice on everything from parenting (“make your child smoke a full cigarette as a toddler to discourage the habit later”) to the surveillance of librarians.
Aside from commanding the narrative on Ivy and Dogg, The Committee is most concerned with imposing a prudish sense of order on their fellow Mudlickers, whom they hope their Junior Mr. Mayor will help transform into Valhallians. The Committee is intent on changing the town’s name from Mudlick to Valhalla in order to attract big box stores and encourage the development of strip malls.
Ivy is kind-hearted, a friend to outcasts, and a progressive, pregnant teenager in a regressive town. She has been bested by Dogg in each of her sincere campaigns, from her bid for president of Mudlick Elementary to the student council race at Eucalyptus Junior High. Dogg sums up Ivy’s defeats simply: “She’s poor.”
Ivy and her mom, a beloved confidant of her customers at the local liquor store, live in an apartment rather than a single-family home, and having an address with a unit number is seen as a notable failing in Mudlick. According to The Committee, “home ownership is a foundation of moral stability.”
Dogg, on the other hand, is a golden-haired tennis star and heir apparent to a successful car dealership. He has status, money, and, perhaps most significantly, the support of The Committee in his half-hearted bid for Junior Mr. Mayor. His friend, incumbent Junior Mr. Mayor and (almost) stereotypical popular guy, Mumford, along with Ivy’s campaign manager, Thatch, provide a charming side story and damning proof of The Committee’s provinciality.
Also integral to the story is Abigail Colton, the remaining descendant of one of the town’s founding families and creator of captivating topiaries. In the end, it seems that Mudlick may be at the mercy of Ms. Colton’s topiary art as much as the capricious hearts of its young people. Although the people of Mudlick develop a fanatical, even fantastical, attachment to Ms. Colton’s topiary, this is not merely a YA novel with a wink toward adult readers. Instead, Ivy vs. Dogg holds literary appeal for mature readers of all ages. There are precocious—or at least insightful—teenagers, and there are repressive elders. There is topiary as metaphor and there is attention to the somehow-still-ongoing debate over a woman’s right to choose. There is satire and a sense of the absurd. There is Ivy. There is Dogg. There is Thatch. There is Mumford. There is a cast of thousands, and they will each make you laugh.
Brian Leung gives us a fun social commentary in this quirky and audacious novel. Readers of his earlier novels will find familiar themes around societal fault lines, but the real joy here is the pitch-perfect parody of the xenophobic gatekeepers desperate to keep our divisions strong and clear.
In a time of overt political discord, it can be tricky to write in the voices of those who wish to squelch change and social progress. Here, we are reminded of the story behind the parody that, while old ideas may not die easily, a last gasp can sound much like the last laugh.