A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck (J Historical Fiction)

A Year Down Yonder

A Year Down Yonder

Richard Peck (Juvenile Historical Fiction)

 It was 1937 and the country was in the midst of what people were calling the Roosevelt recession.  The Dowdel family, like so many others, had hit upon hard times and Mary Alice was to be sent to live with her grandmother until the family got back on their feet.  She and her brother, Joey, had spent many summers with Grandma Dowdel in her sleepy Illinois town, but Mary Alice was fifteen now and this visit was going to be a full twelve months!  With no telephone, an outdoor privy, a spooky attic, and everything being as old as Grandma…if not older…how was a city girl from Chicago going to survive in this hick town for one whole year?

A Year Down Yonder received the Newbery Medal in 2001 and was the sequel to Peck’s A Long Way from Chicago, recipient of a Newbery Honor in 1999.  In this wildly amusing and heartfelt book, Peck delivers one of the most outrageous, audacious, outlandish, and unforgettable characters when he gave us Grandma Dowdel.  She’s trigger-happy (and the whole town knows it) and not afraid to speak her mind.  But behind that gruff and crusty exterior lies a woman who’s generous to a fault and genuinely cares about her neighbors…although she would be the first to deny it.  Peck gives us small-town life and everything that comes with it.  From turkey shoots and Halloween hijinks to Burdicks (you’ll know one when you see ‘em) and burgoo, Grandma Dowdel handles everything with humor and candor and might even treat you to a glass of buttermilk and a square of corn bread in the process.

A Year Down Yonder takes readers to rural America and back to a time where folks learned how to make the most with what little they had and considered themselves blessed if they had their health, their family, and one or two people that could be counted on when it mattered most.  It’s a delightful and amusing book that extolls the virtues of kindness and the importance of family.  It also reminds us not to judge a book by its cover for it is often the tartest apples that make the best pies.  Just ask Grandma Dowdel.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Onion John by Joseph Krumgold (J)

Onion John

Onion John

Joseph Krumgold (Juvenile Fiction)

Twelve-year-old Andy Rusch is a junior to his father’s senior and that carries a lot of weight and responsibility.  Seems that Andy’s father has big plans for him: working for General Magneto this summer, studying at MIT, being an engineer, and maybe one day going to the moon!  But all Andy wants to do is work in the family’s hardware store, play baseball, and hang out with his best friend, Onion John.  Not many people can understand Onion John, but Andy does.  Onion John is a beloved fixture in the small town of Serenity, New Jersey.  He lives a simple life in his stacked-stone house filled with bathtubs and has his own ideas about how to make apples grow bigger or how to make it rain.  Onion John’s fanciful ways clash with Andy’s father who wants his son to be practical and realistic.  But how can a boy possibly choose between his best friend and his father?  And what happens when your best friend starts to become friends with your father?  Up until that point, the worst thing that had ever happened was when Eechee Ries was pulled from the pond and worked over by the Pulmotor.

Joseph Krumgold was the first writer to have been awarded the Newbery Medal twice.  The first was for his 1954 novel …and now Miguel (which I read and really enjoyed) and he did it again in 1960 with this book.  If written today, Onion John would still hold the same strong themes of standing up for what you believe in, being true to yourself, and accepting people for who they are and not for who you would like them to be.  However, if you were pitching a story about a twelve-year-old boy befriending an unintelligible adult male who lives on the outskirts of town in a stone house today, it would clearly be a hard sell and, in all honesty, tend to come off as a bit creepy.  But in 1959, it was simply a story about an unlikely friendship and the virtues of believing in yourself.

In addition to the strong bond Andy builds with Onion John—which eventually spills over and affects his relationship with his father—there is the project that the entire town adopts for the benefit of their most cherished citizen…Onion John.  This is Krumgold providing a social commentary on how society tries to fit everyone into a convenient box and does so under the pretext of personal betterment.  He makes you challenge the nature of charity and poses the question: “When is doing good not really good?”  The people of Serenity wanted to do something very magnanimous for Onion John with the assumption that their efforts would make his life happier, easier, and better.  But one man’s heaven is another man’s hell and those subtleties tend to get in the way all for the sake of benevolence.

Joseph Krumgold packs so many wonderful lessons and moments in this book that it’s hard to choose just one to highlight for this review: Andy’s coming of age, Andy challenging his father, the town’s collective awakening, Andy’s father’s personal redemption, Andy’s deepening bond with his father.  These are all worth further discussion, but I chose one that particularly resonated with me and that was Onion John’s ability to listen.  How often are we talking to someone who is busy texting or reading or cleaning or something-ing and you’ll pause only to have them say, “Go ahead.  I’m listening.”  With Onion John, he would stop everything in order to let you know that at that moment, you were the singular, most important thing in the world.  There was absolutely nothing more important in life at that moment than you.  As Andy described, “One thing about Onion John, whatever he was doing, if someone came along he was always ready to stop and talk things over.”  What a rare quality it is to find someone who is able to put life on pause in order to afford another human being the courtesy of their undivided attention.  American journalist and author Krista Tippett wrote, “Listening is about being present, not just about being quiet.”  Perhaps that is why only Andy could understand Onion John and no one else could.  He was present.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all learn how to listen like that?

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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Tracks by Jim Black

Tracks

Tracks

Jim Black (Adult Fiction)

It’s 1968 in the small town of Archer City, Texas.  Fifteen-year-old Jim and his friends, Charles and Gary, are freshmen in high school and the world is suddenly full of hope and possibility…and broken hearts, broken noses, and a few bruised egos.  Yes, life is good until strange things begin to happen.  There are reports of livestock being found mutilated just outside of town and rumors of satanic cults and aliens begin swirling around faster than a Texas dust storm.  Every nerve in town is raw and on edge and that could only mean one thing: the time is absolutely ripe for Jim, Charles, and Gary to pull off a prank worthy of the ages.

Tracks is the sequel to Jim Black’s delightful and humorous semi-autobiographical River Season.  I was gifted my copy of Tracks by the author himself (who also kindly signed it) who mailed it to me after reading my review of his first book and noting that I was looking for a copy of his sequel.  I must say, I was a bit apprehensive when I started reading Tracks.  Would it capture the same magic and nostalgia as its predecessor?  What if I didn’t like it?  How can I tell an author, who personally sent me a copy of his book, that it fell a little flat and then afterwards, how would I be able to fake my own death?  I shouldn’t have worried because Tracks captures the same heart, soul, and humanity that originally endeared me to three teenaged lads in a small Texas town.

Like Black, I grew up in a small, southern town.  During the 1970s, my town had a population of only 646 and I remember the barbershop with the lighted barber’s pole, the diner, the hardware store, post office, service station, bank, library, and courthouse that stood along Main Street.  Black’s novel isn’t just a story about the special bond of friendship and how family goes way beyond blood, it’s a sentimental and tender journey back to a time when after a fight or a bad date, all it took to set the world right again was a fried fruit pie and a flavored Coke with your best friends sitting beside you in the corner booth.  A time when you walked into the diner and all you had to be asked was, “The usual?”  A time when your mom served you Malt-O-Meal for breakfast, you played Parcheesi with your grandmother on Sunday, and you sat around the television set watching Bonanza at night.  It was a time when friendship meant that someone always had your back and was ready to offer up a hand or a shoulder when needed.  It’s a story about life and everything that goes with it: humor and heartbreak, hope and disappointment, pitfalls and promises.  It’s the uncertainty and the adventure that makes life worth living and a story that each of us writes for ourselves with every breath we take.

I will never be able to thank Jim Black enough for his kindness and generosity for sending me Tracks (he sent me a second book which I will be reading and reviewing in the very near future).  I read because I love getting lost in a story and I write because it is what God gifted me to do.  When the two meet and happen to come across an appreciative eye, it makes life all the more sweet.

Ben Franklin once said, “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”  With the help of his two best friends in the world, Jim Black was able to accomplish both.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County 

Tiffany Baker (Adult Fiction)

The day I laid Robert Morgan to rest was remarkable for two reasons.  First, even though it was August, the sky overhead was as rough and cold as a January lake; and second, it was the day I started to shrink.

Truly Plaice was destined to be a big girl.  During her mother’s pregnancy, the town began to take bets as to what her final weight would be upon delivery.  Turns out, nobody in that town won.  No one came close.  Her school teacher called her a “little giant” and Truly became known for her massive size and build.  Where her sister, Serena Jane, was wispy and beautiful, Truly countered with her girth and homeliness.  But with so many things, Truly simply accepted this genetic disparity as fact and actually said the difference between the two was quite easy, “The reason the two of us were as opposite as sewage and spring water, I thought, was that pretty can’t exist without ugly.”  So, through her own eyes, Truly shares her story of wickedness and witchcraft, of poverty and prosperity, of life and death, and of a very big woman in a very small town.

Throughout this book, I wasn’t sure whether to feel pity or pride for Truly.  Here is a woman who has wholly resigned herself to her situation and although she feels the occasional stab of pity, jealousy, or regret, her unconditional surrender to her circumstances is both admirable and heartbreaking.  Her friend Amelia may have summed up Truly’s attitude perfectly one day when they were both walking home from school, “Things are what they are.  You can’t change them.”  Perhaps Truly realized this early on in life and found that she’d be much happier by choosing resignation over resistance.

Tiffany Baker does a nice job at keeping her story entertaining and engrossing by throwing in several plot turns and twists.  Although there is a lot going on with multiple characters and their individual story lines, Truly proves to be a capable storyteller and manages to keep everything orderly and fluid.  However, despite an engaging story and a unique main character, there was a big plot hole that kept my rating at a four versus a five.  I found that Truly’s need for a cure and her want of one were at constant odds.  The reasons she stated for not pursuing treatment are legitimate to her circumstances at the time save one…money.  You can’t claim poverty as an excuse when you constantly remind the reader that you have a suitcase full of money hidden under your bed.  This was clearly frustrating for me, but not enough to override the valuable lessons contained within The Little Giant of Aberdeen County:  love the skin you’re in, be courageous in accepting that which you cannot change, and never think that you are so full that there is not enough room to let anyone else in.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick

Heading Out to Wonderful

Heading Out to Wonderful

Robert Goolrick (Adult Fiction)

At thirty-nine years old, Charlie Beale arrived in the town of Brownsburg, Virginia (population 538) in a beat-up truck and toting two suitcases—one holding his clothes and a set of butcher knives and the other filled with cash.  Brownsburg is a town where prestige is measured by the size of your floral blooms and the yield of your vegetable garden, where no one divorced, schools let out in May so the children could help with the family’s planting, and everyone believed in God and The Book.  It’s 1948 and as soon as Charlie drove into Brownsburg, he knew he was home.  When he saw Sylvan Glass, the teenage bride of the town’s wealthiest resident, he knew that he was heading to something wonderful.  But Brownsburg is a small town and news—good, bad, and particularly scandalous—travels fast and Charlie is about to find out that wonderful comes with a very hefty price tag.

If I were to give half ratings, this book would lean more towards three-and-one-half stars, but I gave it a three simply because the last twenty pages of the book were so severe and such a drastic departure from the rest of the story that it left me feeling confused and a bit angry.  Goolrick is a wonderful storyteller and gives readers an idyllic town where folks sit on their front porch and gossip and the shop merchants know what you want before you cross their threshold.  Being a small town, we know that no good will come from Charlie and Sylvan’s illicit relationship and that it is doomed from the beginning; however, Goolrick’s handling of these star-crossed lovers is not only severe, it’s incomprehensible.  The last few pages are such a stark contrast to the rest of the story, that it begs one to question what could possibly have made Goolrick deviate so unbelievably from his story and characters?  It was almost as if he handed the remainder of his novel to someone else and said, “You take it from here.”

When Charlie entered Will Haislett’s butcher shop looking for a job, Will said to him, “Let me tell you something, son.  When you’re young, and you head out to wonderful, everything is fresh and bright as a brand new penny, but before you get to wonderful you’re going to have to pass through all right.  And when you get to all right, stop and take a good, long look, because that may be as far as you’re ever going to go.”  The problem with Heading Out to Wonderful, is that we started out in Wonderful and were able to happily hang out and enjoy the scenery for a bit, but somehow we missed a sign or drove too far or made a right instead of a left and suddenly found ourselves far away from Wonderful and instead somewhere between All Right and Okay.  Unfortunately, Charlie Beale didn’t have the luxury of GPS tracking in 1948.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs by Betty G. Birney (J)

The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs

The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs  

Betty G. Birney (Juvenile Fiction)

“Sometimes extraordinary things begin in ordinary places” and, according to 11-year old Eben McAllister, there is absolutely, positively NO place more ordinary than Sassafras Springs.  On this particularly hot July day, while Eben is buried in his book about the Seven Wonders of the World, his father offers him a deal:  find seven Wonders in seven days in Sassafras Springs and he will buy Eben a ticket to Colorado.  SEVEN?  Eben can’t imagine even finding ONE Wonder let alone seven.  But with a ticket out of town on the line, Eben is ready, willing, and able to look just about anywhere and everywhere to find them.

With folksy, down-home dialogue and quirky, lovable characters, Birney makes even an ordinary saw, a worn-down table, and a waterlogged bookcase true Wonders.  Her story is like a tall glass of cold lemonade and the best spot on the front porch:  refreshing, pleasing, and thoroughly enjoyable.  I found it bittersweet when I came to the last page of this book.  Having to say goodbye to Eben, his trusty dog, Sal, and the folks of Sassafras Springs was akin to leaving home for the first time.  But as Eben reminds us, when Columbus and Balboa set off to discover faraway lands, even they knew that it wasn’t “goodbye”, just “see you soon”.

I hope this little gem encourages readers to discover or rediscover the treasure that lies right outside their own doorstep, for sometimes the biggest Wonders are right in our own backyard.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.fab.lexile.com