“My Chemical Mountain” follows the teenage trio of Jason, Charlie, and Cornpup. The three boys live in a rural New York town dominated by the chemical plant Mareno Chem. Mareno Chem is a double whammy offender in the boys’ community: not only do they produce materials that have horrific effects on humans, they also dump their chemical-laden waste into the town’s forest landscape, poisoning trees, creeks, wildlife, and the local residents. Cornpup’s been so affected by the company’s products that he’s got those lovely cysts referenced in this review’s opening line, and Jason’s dad, a Mareno Chem employee who was working hard to reveal the company’s questionable practices, recently died in a suspicious accident.
What instantly stands out about this book are Vacco’s elaborate pictures of what a forest town would look like ravaged by chemical waste. The landscapes she describes include silver mercury trees, fluorescent green creeks, and forests dotted with rainbow-sheened puddles. Her words create such an eerie and otherworldly feel that it seems as if “My Chemical Mountain” is set on another planet entirely. Add in the physical effects that manifest themselves into alien-looking sores and deformities on the local animals and residents, and that otherworldly feel is completely solidified. Despite their nefarious causes, Vacco’s chemically-ravaged landscapes and wildlife come across as beautiful.
My favorite part of the book was that while Vacco could have understandably made the struggle against this chemical villain the main focus of the story, she instead focuses on the nuances of her characters’ friendships and families while living under these deadly and unique circumstances. Jason, Charlie, and Cornpup each have interesting backstories, and their odd friendship that has been shaped by their chemical surroundings seems at once sad and desperate yet unbreakable and heartwarming. These boys could give the Three Musketeers a run for their money, as nobody could climb a chemical mountain with nearly as much daring, strength, and endurance as these guys.