Masters of Disaster
(2010) is a humorous adventure novel for middle-grade readers by Gary Paulsen. A three-time Newbery Honor Book winner, Paulsen earned the 1997 Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in young adult literature. Masters of Disaster
follows the exploits of 12-year old Henry Mosley and his best friends Riley Dolen and Reed Hamner. When Henry decides they need to spice up their mundane lives, a series of disastrous adventures ensue, involving everything from dirty diapers and bat guano, to loose tigers and oozy sludge. Through it all, the boys’ friendship remains rock-solid.
Inspired by a documentary about General Douglas MacArthur, Henry convinces Riley and Reed that they need to “Undertake and Implement a Series of Daring Experiences and Grand Adventures.” The goal is threefold: to impress girls, change history, and prove their manhood. Having read Huckleberry Finn
and Treasure Island
in English class, Henry is convinced that their own experiences growing up in suburban Cleveland are dead boring. He assures Riley and Reed that the innovative adventures Henry masterminds will also help build their character.
Henry is the planner and de facto leader of the group. Riley observes that Henry “had the best ideas, and his smile and his belief in his plans were so amazingly convincing,” that he and Reed would follow Henry’s lead anytime. Riley is the documentarian of the group. With a reporter mother and stenographer father, Riley’s detailed notetaking is second nature. He is always prepared with a first aid kit, snacks, and a Swiss Army Knife. Riley’s standard expression is “thoughtful,” while Reed’s is “confused.” Reed manages to get lost on the way to Henry’s house even though he lives nearby. Reed worries that the “daring” aspect of Henry’s plans actually means “painful.” Reed tends to babble when nervous or when covered in disgusting muck. The school bully, Dwight Hauser, dismisses them all as “dweebs and brainiacs.”
Henry decides that the boys should break a world record for the most forward airborne somersaults on a bicycle. Calculating the amount of height needed to get the most rotation, Henry determines that someone should ride the bike off the third story roof of his neighbor’s house onto the diving board of their pool. The pool cover will act as a giant trampoline and safety net. Since Henry will be busy organizing and working as “point man” for the stunt, and Riley busy recording the details for posterity, it is up to Reed to be the daredevil. Swathed in protective athletic gear, with his hands tied to the bike, Reed launches off the roof, hits the diving board, ricochets into an alley, plows through a series of trash cans, and ends up covered with stinky, poopy diapers. As Henry and Riley hose Reed off, Henry assures Reed that the “smell of doody” is “the smell of victory.”
For their next adventure, Henry declares that they should try living in the wilderness like their pioneer forefathers, with no food, matches, or shelter; only the items in their pockets. It gets dark quickly, and they hear strange noises in the woods. A laughing creature eats Reed’s pants, and a giant snake-like thing grabs him and dunks him in the river. Henry and Riley encounter a tiger. Amazing Dave, from Amazing Dave’s Wildlife Show, reveals that he is searching for a hyena, an elephant, and the timid tiger, Nick, who escaped from their cages. The boys abandon their wilderness adventure.
Henry concludes that their first two exploits lacked “Practical Application” and “Cultural Significance,” and have not attracted any attention from girls. He decides they should go dumpster diving, analyze garbage samples, and win science scholarships. A shy girl, Marci Robbins, overhears their plan and gives them some helpful advice. Reed wraps himself in plastic wrap, braves a giant rhino-rat, and collects disgusting specimens from the school dumpster. In the chemistry lab, one of the bags of “oozy sludgy stuff” ignites and explodes, covering Reed with malodorous gunk.
The boys continue their bold ventures by trying to solve a cold-case mystery of a family who disappeared from their home in 1887. A note Henry finds alludes to bodies in an old Civil War gunpowder storage cavern. The friends don’t find any human bodies, but they do find a bat colony. Reed gets covered with bat guano, discovers he is allergic, and breaks out in weeping sores. Reed’s mother has him sleep in the basement because his stench is so strong.
Henry believes that riding some retired rodeo horses and an old bull will get them some bragging rights with the girls, but it results in Reed being dragged through a field of cow manure and into a catfish pond. Reed grows even smellier, but Riley gets some great photos. For the town Memorial Day parade, Henry designs a skateboard-dogsled pulled by a Chihuahua, Irish Setters, a terrier mix, a Rottweiler, and a variety of other dogs. When the dogs notice a local cat, they tear off through the parade, dragging llamas, ponies, a group of theater students, and Reed through an ice cream store. Reed lands in a Porta-Potty. Riley gets a video.
On the final day of school, Henry announces that they need to right a wrong. Reed worries because after all these adventures he says he is “stinking and itching and oozing and crying in my sleep and periodically flinching,” but Henry reassures him that this plan involves no disgusting fluids. Henry has learned that the bully Dwight Hauser was mean to gentle Marci Robbins, knocking her down, calling her names, and making her cry. The boys put rabbit poo in Dwight’s expensive sneakers and post flyers all around school calling him out as a bully. They are suspended for the last forty-seven minutes of the school year. Marci smiles at Riley, Reed knows there will be no more landing in poop for a while, and they look forward to more of Henry’s adventures.