by Jeannette Walls
When their mom goes AWAL to pursue her singing career, Bean and her older sister, Liz, decide to visit their Uncle Tinsley in the town where their mother grew up. The two hop a bus from California, travel across the country, and end up at the Holiday mansion in Byler, Virginia where they beg lodgings from the eccentric Uncle Tinsley. Byler is a wonderful change for the two girls, at least at first, offering a stability they have never known, and a sense of family roots. But Byler also offers adversity through prejudice, preconceived notions and abuse of power. How much can these two girls endure before they take to the road again?While this novel is not promoted as a YA novel, it has great YA appeal. First off, the narrator is twelve-year-old, Bean, whose voice lends a great youthful flavor to the novel, and whose simplistic views of right and wrong and naiveté enriches the thematic elements, and amplifies the shortcomings of those adults who ought to know better. The novel has the flavor of To Kill a Mockingbird, especially the town of Byler, a setting reminiscent of Maycomb, Alabama. In Byler, manners and family tradition are important, segregation is part of the history of the area and desegregation of schools has just begun, and the past is never forgotten. In fact, To Kill a Mockingbird is mentioned a few times in the novel, since Bean is reading it in school, and perhaps that is in part the inspiration for the plot of this story. The story is set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, and while the war is mentioned a few times briefly, it doesn’t actually play a large part in the narrative—just as WWII is mentioned a few times in passing during the Mockingbird narrative. As in Mockingbird, the antagonists in the novel are all adults, the first being Charlotte, Liz and Bean’s mother, whose selfish antics leave the two girls in a constant state of neglect. Thankfully, she only plays a small part in the entire work, and this is fortunate because “flaky” just scratches the surface of her character. While Liz and Bean are very forgiving of their mother for the most part, the reader may have a more difficult time forgiving her. Perhaps the most evil and hated protagonist in the story is Jerry Maddox, the mill foreman and boss, who constantly bends the rules and abuses others simply because he can get away with it. When the two girls join their fates to Jerry’s, they have no idea how much trouble they will encounter. While I enjoyed the ending of the novel and the sort of poetic justice that Maddox receives, I am troubled that the story does not offer consequences for Maddox’s eventual fate. However, perhaps that is the way of the world—karma steps in where men will not—the consequences of the universe are far more serious than those of the court system. Adult readers who enjoyed Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help will likely enjoy this work. Younger readers who enjoyed Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool, and Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now will find a similar magic in this work.