It’s Halloween and three twelve-year-old boys are getting ready for a not-to-miss night of trick-or-treating. Nothing is going to stop them from collecting their loot of candy and other Halloween giveaways—except maybe an Atari 2600 that Andy Astoria covets. So opens Chris Keane’s young adult book Loot, although the boys don’t know yet that they’re in for more trick than treat.
Andy and his buddies Carl and Teddy are playing video games on the Atari console at a local Radio Shack, which seems to be a common practice: They don’t have the money to buy it, so they play the games until the salesclerk kicks them out. They head home on their bikes to finish their costumes, but Andy focuses only on the challenge ahead of him: Convincing his father he absolutely needs an Atari 2600. It will be his birthday present, and, if need be, a Christmas present too.
By the time he arrives home, he will have rehearsed his speech so well that his father will have to agree to buy the Atari, but the house is dark and silent when he walks in the door. Attached to the refrigerator is this note:
—Do your homework
—Your Aunt Edie died
—Upon completion of homework, meet me at your Aunt Cally’s.
Andy rides his bike to Aunt Cally’s, where his father tells him absolutely not—not the Atari for his birthday and definitely not for his birthday and Christmas. The wake for Aunt Edie is anything but. More like a raucous party of booze and a rumor gone wild, the antagonistic relatives couldn’t care less about Aunt Edie’s death other than what she is rumored to have left behind: the hundreds or thousands of dollars they believe she stashed away at her farmhouse. Aunt Edie didn’t believe in banks.
In his hidden spot below the deck, Andy overhears the squabbling over the loot Aunt Edie supposedly hid, and he concocts a plan to get to the money before his relatives do. Then, he can buy the Atari and won’t need to beg his father for it. His plan: He will convince Carl and Teddy to take the bus to Aunt Edie’s farmhouse to find the loot. He hasn’t been there for three years, but he remembers the dirt trails leading to his aunt’s house when he stayed with her during the summer. The trail might be overgrown now, but walking through brush is a small price to pay if he can get his hands on the loot.
As Andy plots, his bulked-up, sixteen-year-old cousin Doug grabs him by the throat and warns him not to get any bright ideas. After all, Doug lived with Aunt Edie and took care of her when his mother was drinking too much and neglected him. Andy didn’t care enough to visit Aunt Edie when she was failing, Doug tells him, and so the money is his. He tells Andy, “I WILL FIND THAT MONEY. No one’s stopping me. Not you, not the geezers up on the deck.”
Dressed in a half-finished Batman costume, Andy rides his bike to the 7-11 to meet his friends. Andy tells Carl and Teddy about the loot at his aunt’s farmhouse, and he wants them to ride the bus with him to Sussex County to search for it. Carl dissents. He wants to go out on trick-or-treating. They’ve made their costumes and he doesn’t want to miss the Halloween loot. But Andy convinces him and Teddy they will find much more at his aunt’s farmhouse, hundreds and maybe even thousands of dollars, and then they can buy the Atari 2600 and won’t ever get kicked out of Radio Shack again. On the bus, Andy reminisces about his Aunt Edie’s teaching him how to hunt, fish, and survive the woods if he got lost.
Just as Andy and his friends are taking the bus to the farmhouse, Doug is packing a bag with bare-bone essentials. He hops on his dirt bike and drives farther away from “his mother’s drama and all that came with it: hangovers, asshole boyfriends, abusive bosses, collection agencies, and the train wreck known as his extended family.” Aunt Edie was his refuge after his father died and his mother dumped him at his aunt’s house. Now, he dreams of much more than what his present life delivers. The money Aunt Edie hid will bring him “a bigger bed in a bigger state out west.”
The plot and mood of Loot are seamless companions, each complementing the other. It seems simple enough: A thrilling adventure story of three boys seeking hidden treasure at the house of a dead aunt on the same night that ghosts and ghouls and vampires roam the streets for loot of their own. But all is not what it seems. When Doug finds the three companions at the farmhouse, he wrests from them the meager treasure they have found, with reason and emotion, not brawn and toughness. His speech is almost eloquent: “Every summer—EVERY SUMMER of my life I spent out here with her. And when she started to get too sick to run things, well, I took care of things so the place didn’t fall apart.” Andy sees the truth in Doug’s argument and recognizes a fact of Doug’s childhood: He has lived a painful childhood.
The search for hidden treasure is almost always a lure, whether as child or adult. Loot goes further than a lure, however, as it explores the deeper meanings of childhood and emerging adulthood. Doug the bully reveals his internal struggle and Andy listens, understands, and responds. Anyway, the meager loot he and his friends find in cookie jars and an old shoebox will not buy the Atari they covet. This is not the point, however. The money belongs to Doug, and so does the gold medal Carl finds that was awarded to Aunt Edie—“For Service in the Women’s Artillery Corps: 1942-1943.”
Andy’s sees his cousin’s hurt while at the same time discovering his aunt’s valor, insights deepening both the story and the characters. As much as a twelve-year-old can understand, this trip that Andy and his friends choose to take on a Halloween night isn’t about the loot they came close to stealing—unlike the loot they would have collected going door to door—but about life’s unexpected twists and turns.
When the boys get on the last bus to return to town, it’s too late to participate in the Halloween fun. Andy apologizes to his friends for diverting them from an entertaining evening—to find treasure instead of candy—but Carl realizes something even more meaningful. “Today was better than a video game,” he tells his friends. “ ’Cause it was real.”
Loot is a short book for a young adult audience narrated in a straightforward style that appeals to this age group (12 to 18 years). It hearkens back to the 1980s when kids performed wheelies, played Atari, Jack LaLanne took the populace by storm with his fitness routines, and The Goonies was a hit movie.
But it is also more than a story about the ‘80s. Loot is about a lesson learned, maturity gained, and a Halloween night to remember.