Four Miles to Pinecone
(1977), a young adult novel by Jon Hassler, centers on a teenage boy wrestling with his conscience after he catches his best friend robbing a convenience store. Often read in high schools and middle schools as a set text, critics praise the book for its strong moral themes. Hassler was a popular author who primarily wrote books for children and teenagers. Before writing full-time, he worked as a teacher in Minnesota. He reportedly finished his final novel days before his death in 2008.Four Miles to Pinecone
takes place in 1970s Minnesota. Sixteen-year-old Tom Barry lives in St. Paul with his parents. His parents don’t have much money, and he helps them out by working full-time at the local grocery store. Although Tom loves helping his parents, he wants an education. More than anything, he wants to return to school full-time as a high school junior.
Before school breaks up for summer vacation, Tom approaches his English teacher with his concerns. His teacher offers him a deal. If he can write a proper story during summer vacation, with fleshed-out characters, a decent plot, and no grammatical errors, he can start junior year. If he fails, the school will hold him back and make him repeat the year. Tom takes the deal although he is convinced that he will fail.
Tom’s best friend, Mouse, is a troublemaker. A bad influence on Tom, Tom’s parents wish Tom wouldn’t hang out with him so much. Tom decides not to see a lot of Tom over summer vacation because he must focus on his assignment. Mouse, however, doesn’t plan to sit around the house on his own all summer; he will create his own entertainment.
One night, Tom sees Mouse breaking into the local convenience store. He doesn’t want to rat out his friend, but he also knows that stealing isn’t right. When Tom confronts Mouse about it, Mouse claims he didn’t steal anything. He says that he works nights and he was only doing his job. Not believing Mouse, Tom is not sure what to do. He knows he cannot tell his parents or the authorities, and so there is only one option left: He decides to write his story about Mouse and the convenience store.
The police come around asking everyone questions about the robbery. Tom claims that he doesn’t know anything. The police find this hard to believe. It’s a small town; someone must know something. The head police officer, Detective Afton, knows that Tom is a good kid. He is worried that Tom knows who robbed the convenience store but is too afraid to admit it. Tom goes to stay with his uncle in Pinecone for a few weeks until the excitement dies down.
Detective Afton goes after Tom, confronting him with the evidence so far. The perpetrator stole cigarettes and money. He knew the best time to strike, and he knew exactly where the cash register was. Since Tom works at the grocery store, he is now a suspect. Tom is horrified because he doesn’t want his parents thinking that he is a thief. Despite his fear, he doesn’t turn Mouse in yet. Mouse warns Tom that if he rats him out, there will be consequences.
As the weeks pass, Mouse breaks into more places. He works with Lester, another local troublemaker. Mouse blames Tom—if Tom weren’t so boring, Mouse wouldn’t need to make new friends. He tells Tom that he should stop working at the store to rob other places instead. It is an easy way to make money and Mouse doesn’t feel bad about it. Now, Tom knows that it is only a matter of time before Mouse robs the store again.
Despite his conscience telling him to turn Mouse in, Tom focuses on his story. He thinks it is too late to rat on Mouse; he will be in trouble for withholding information from the police. It’s easier to pretend he doesn’t know anything and enjoy the rest of summer vacation.
Tom cannot avoid trouble for long. Mouse and others come looking for him; soon it is obvious that there is no choice but to turn in Mouse. Mouse and the others threaten to hurt Tom if he won’t help them break into another store. Tom finally goes to Detective Afton and tells him what he knows. Although Detective Afton is angry that Tom didn’t come to him sooner, he doesn’t plan to punish him.
The authorities arrest Mouse. Lester escapes and no one hears from him again. After a trial, the judge sentences Mouse to the State Training School, where he will undergo rehabilitation. The judge warns him that he will end up in prison if he doesn’t change his ways. Tom hands in his story and the school invites him to start junior year.