A young boy finds himself pulled between his dedication to his small-town family and his fascination with the world beyond.
In this debut historical novel, Joe McDowell lives on a farm in the mountains of North Carolina, frustrated by his family’s worsening financial straits. The bank demands the loan on their property be repaid sooner, and Ted, Joe’s older brother, is drafted to fight the Nazis overseas, shorting them on labor. Then an accident leaves Joe’s Dad hobbled, unable to work efficiently, and Ruthie, Joe’s sister, is obliged to temporarily leave school despite being a stellar pupil. Martha, Joe’s mother, is compelled to take a job working at a local restaurant, and peddles vegetables in town. When Martha learns that her mother has become gravely ill, she travels to Raleigh with Joe to visit her family, and he is enticed by a different world, one with tantalizingly rich cultural opportunities and the promise of escape from ceaseless poverty. His teenage sister, Katie, has already defected to city life, and while her selfish defiance irks him, he can’t help but also be drawn to an alternate destiny. Martha, too, feels it magnetism when a man from her past offers a reprieve from her family’s endless troubles. Eventually, Joe is forced to decide which realm he will inhabit, one that honors his obligations to his family’s generational business, or one that propels him into the exciting unknown. In her book, Davidson Keller delicately portrays Joe’s burgeoning inner turmoil, haunted by what he sees as Katie’s betrayal, but also her salvation. The moment Joe finally tells his father he’s thinking of leaving the farm one day is rendered in heartbreakingly poignant language: “I walked along with him, feeling tired now. I had told him, and the relief was like dropping a huge sack of potatoes. I didn’t think I would change my mind, remembering the electric surge I got watching those boys at NC State.” And Martha’s tortured ambivalence is equally affecting, a confusion Joe detects and is terrified by. This is an unusually wise work, both sensitive and powerful.
A moving depiction of a family’s struggle to stay together.