Seventh-grader Tristan Strong lost his best friend, Eddie, in a bus accident, and Tristan is dealing with grief as well as guilt because he thinks he could have saved Eddie. Now, all Tristan has left from Eddie is a journal where Eddie was recording a bunch of stories. With the journal and his grief in hand, Tristan’s parents send him to live with his grandparents in Alabama to recover.
Then a creature shows up one night and steals Eddie’s journal. Tristan is sent on a chase to the Bottle Tree where he ends up punching a hole in the MidPass, a magical world filled with black American folk heroes. The only way Tristan can get back home is to help the gods find Anansi to seal the hole and end the war in the Alke and MidPass. Easy enough, right?
Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky introduces black American folklore like John Henry, High John, and Brer Rabbit, plus older tales such as the story-weaving spider Anansi. In this book, they are gods living in their own world adjacent to Tristan’s world. The mythology includes strong ties to the slave trade and slavery. For instance, the main antagonists, Uncle Cotton and the Maafa, embody greed and enslavement, and monstrous bone ships carry the terrible and haunting memories of enslaved Africans who suffered and died in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
The importance of memory and storytelling are key themes that come to life through the folklore and history of this story. Tristan discovers that he is an Anansesem, which means his ability to weave stories is imbued with magical qualities that bring the stories to life. His abilities keep history and mythology alive. History and mythology are intertwined, and readers will see how they influence each other.
Tristan also deals with his own grief over the death of his friend Eddie. Tristan’s memories and Eddie’s journal keep those memories alive. Through Tristan’s memories and Eddie’s ghost, Tristan learns how to cope with his grief. He will always be sad that his best friend is gone, but using the journal and his storytelling abilities, Tristan can continue to live his own life while honoring Eddie’s memory.
Storytelling is one of the most important themes in Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, and it serves as a constant reminder that stories keep histories and memories alive. Oral storytelling is one of the oldest practices, and Mbalia taps into that intensely human need to share experiences in a beautiful and creative way. Tristan’s story encapsulates the fun, adventurous elements of traveling to a new world where gods come to life and mythology runs rampant. The heart of this book, however, is in the memories and experiences that have survived and are now shared through Tristan’s eyes.
- Tristan comes from a long legacy of boxers. Boxing-related violence, like punching, happens. For example, Tristan notes that in his first fight, he “got knocked flat on [his] butt. Twice.”
- Tristan has gotten into several fights at school. Tristan notes, “At least I’d held my own in those school fights.”
- A legend named Gum Baby threatens Tristan for following her. She says, “If Gum Baby had more time, she’d wear out that hide of [Tristan’s], up one end and down the other.”
- Gum Baby tries to beat up Tristan. Tristan narrates, “it took everything I had to shield myself as her tiny fists and feet pummeled me.”
- Tristan tells Gum Baby that if she loses Eddie’s book, he’ll “turn [Gum Baby] into an incense holder.”
- Tristan accidentally nearly knocks Gum Baby over. In response, she grabs the hood of his sweatshirt and yells, “BUMBLETONGUE, GUM BABY GONNA WHOOP YOU LIKE YOUR BUTT’S ON FIRE!”
- Tristan uses his boxing abilities to protect himself against magical monsters. Tristan describes that during a fight with the fetterlings or magical shackle-snakes, “I ducked its attack and slammed home an uppercut. Another slithered up and I snapped two quick jabs and a hook.”
- Other characters use weapons against magical monsters, including staffs and swords. Tristan uses magical boxing gloves gifted to him by John Henry. In one battle, Tristan punches a fetterling, and “it exploded, showering [Tristan] with broken bits of chain and fluff.” These fight sequences often last a few pages.
- Tristan’s best friend, Eddie, died in a bus crash, and Tristan couldn’t save him. Tristan tells his friend, Ayanna, about the crash. Tristan narrates, “We drove over a bridge and hit a patch of ice . . . We slid into the other lane, right into the path of a truck . . . I saw that the bus was hanging over the edge of the bridge . . . Eddie was in the back corner, trapped between two seats, struggling and failing to free himself. He asked me to save him . . . I still see his hand reaching for me. I didn’t move I was so scared. I was scared of falling, of drowning in the water below. I didn’t wanna die.” Tristan spends several pages telling the full story.
- Much of the mythology in the book is influenced by the effects of slavery. For instance, Tristan meets two immortal women with wings. He describes, “Nana used to tell me stories about how over in Africa, before the horrors of slavery, people used to fly all the time . . . Then came the chains and ships, and pain and whips, and the people’s wings fell or were torn off.”
- There is a magical war being waged in Alke, and there are many casualties. Ayanna tells Tristan that she “had to go talk to some of the Midfolk… . . . had to tell some families that we weren’t able to find their loved ones.”
- Tristan activates a magical statue while being chased. To do this, Tristan picked up Gum Baby and “threw the best spiral [he’d] ever tossed in [his] life. Like, fifty yards, easy. I should’ve played football.”
- Tristan and his friends go into the mountains looking for the Story Box, but the mountains have several layers of protection against intruders, including laser-shooting rocks. As they fly in on their magical raft, Tristan describes, “Silver and black lightning bolts were being hurled at us by giant black stone towers with jewels at the tops.”
- The horrors of slavery are baked into the folklore throughout the book. Sometimes, Tristan gets a glimpse at different scenes hinting at this. One of the obvious moments is when the god, High John, shows him, “Old trees and Mississippi suns. Auction houses and Congo landings.” At these images, Tristan says, “I didn’t recognize any of the images and yet I knew them all.”
- Gum Baby slaps Tristan across the face because, as Gum Baby says, “Ain’t no time for sleep . . . Gum Baby got missions and stuff.”
- Giant poisonous brand flies swarm the Ridgefolk in the mountain. Tristan describes the scene, saying, “Everywhere a brand fly landed, skin sizzled and welted. Victims tried to peel the flies off, but whatever type of poison those flying iron monsters carried, it was potent. After a few feeble attempts to free themselves, the Ridgefolk crumpled to the floor paralyzed. Fetterlings snapped cuffs around their wrists and ankles and tugged them out the door.” The attack from all the monsters in this scene lasts for a chapter.
- High John cuts up a massive monster with his magical ax. Tristan describes, “It wasn’t pretty. You ever see a twig get caught beneath a lawnmower? Or tree branches fed into a wood-chipper? Yeah.”
- The poison from the brand flies infects Tristan’s friend, Ayanna. When they find her again, “she’s not breathing.” They bring Ayanna with them when they flee the mountain. Chestnutt, another companion, is also in a magical coma due to the poison.
- Tristan and the surviving gods fight the Maafa, a magical entity built upon pain that consumes all that it can. Tristan sees the others fighting and describes, “But the refugees from Midfolk fought, too, for their very right to live, though they were far from home. John Henry, the raft line wrapped around his waist so he could use both hands, swung his hammer like he was back drilling through a mountain. Left and right, up and down, the hammer fell on the fetterlings with the rash of metal on metal. No flourishes, just a steady rhythm.” The battle lasts for several chapters.
Drugs and Alcohol
- Light profanity is used throughout. Profanity includes chumps, sucks, dumb, stupid, idiotic, nimrod, and loudmouth.
- Tristan calls Gum Baby a “doll baby,” and she attacks him. She calls him a “giant turtle-faced thistle-head.”
- Tristan’s go-to exclamation is “sweet peaches.”
- Tristan sees a place called the Golden Crescent from the air. Tristan says, “Holy—” but is cut off by some of his companions.
- This is a book about mythology, specifically West African mythologies that include “Nyame or Anansi.” There are also many African American folk legends, including “High John, John Henry, and Brer Rabbit.” These legends are gods. Tristan interacts with these immortal beings frequently, and they all do a variety of magic. They also live in magical realms that Tristan visits.
- Rick Riordan, the author of the Percy Jackson series and head of Riordan Reads, has a preface in this book. Riordan pokes fun at Greek mythology, saying that “you can’t swing a gorgon’s head in any bookstore without hitting at least a dozen Greek-myth-inspired books.”
- Tristan’s best friend, Eddie, dies before the start of the book, and Eddie leaves Tristan his journal. Eddie’s journal emits an “emerald-green glow” that Tristan realizes only he can see.
- The first page of the journal is blank when Tristan received it, but Tristan soon notices that “a weird symbol appeared to be stitched” into Eddie’s journal. It is assumed that it appeared out of nowhere.
- Nana tells many stories about mythology to Tristan. When they arrive on the farm, Nana tells Tristan about haints. She says that they’re “evil spirits . . . Lord knows, plenty of those ramblin’ about.” Haints show up throughout the book.
- There is a baby doll in Tristan’s room at his grandparents’ house. One night, Tristan hears weird noises, and he turns his flashlight on. When the light hit the baby, it “rotated its head.” The baby doll is a legend called Gum Baby, and she talks to Tristan. In Anansi’s stories, Gum Baby “was a doll Anansi used to trap an African fairy while he was on a quest.”
- Tristan punches the Bottle Tree, ripping a hole in the sky. “The punch smashed into the large blue bottle near the top, shattering the glass…Out of the corner of [Tristan’s] eye, [Tristan] saw a shadowy shape ooze from what was left of the broken bottle on the ground and creep along the grass…a chasm ripped open at the foot of the tree. A giant sucking sound filled the clearing like air rushing toward a hole.” Tristan and Gum Baby fall through the hole as they try to save Eddie’s journal.
- Ayanna describes Tristan’s world and her world, Alke, by saying, “Alke is the dream to your world’s reality. The tales, the fables, the things you think are made up, they exist here. We aren’t just stories—we’re real, with hopes and dreams and fears just like you.”
- Eddie’s spirit comes back through his journal several times throughout the book. Tristan describes, “The journal pages spun and coiled in the air until they formed a humanoid figure.” Eddie saves Tristan from the fetterlings, which are metals snakes with shackles for heads. He also speaks to Tristan occasionally.
- Tristan is an Anansesem, or a magical storyteller. John Henry explains that when Tristan tells stories, “something special happens.” Tristan is able to bring the stories to life or summon them with his words, and this happens several times throughout the book. For instance, when Tristan tells a story about him and Eddie, the clouds around him “swirled and stretched into a diorama. Two cloud boys—one slightly larger than the other—crept into a large nimbus of a building.”
- The god High John pulls Tristan’s soul out of his body and brings him into a spirit realm where they can talk privately. They fly on the back of High John’s giant crow, “Old Familiar.”
- In the popular stories about High John, he would take “slaves’ spirits on trips of happiness and joy and wonder, all while their bodies remained on the plantation and continued to work.”
- There are forest fairies, the Mmoatia, who know plants and healing remedies. They “have taken a shine to [Tristan].”
- Before a battle, John Henry says, “Give me strength.” Tristan “was confused until [he] realized it was like a prayer before battle, and [Tristan] gulped. When gods prayed, things were about to get real.”
- Inside the mountain, the council within calls upon their ancestors for guidance. Tristan notes, “I could see through them. ‘They’re spirits,’ I mumbled.”
- The diviner in the mountain tells the ancestors that Tristan “has the blessing of gods and the spirit of the imbongi . . . I can feel it.”
- Tristan is afraid of heights, and while flying around on a magical flying saucer he “mumbled prayers in seven different languages.”
- There’s a legend about High John in which he “fell in love with the devil’s daughter. In order to win her hand, the devil told him he had to clear an enormous field, plant corn, then harvest it, all in one day.”
by Alli Kestler