Steinke (Milk, 2005, etc.) ponders the nature of religious faith in this coming-of-age story about a defrocked New-Age minister’s daughter’s adjusting to her family’s new life in suburban Virginia in the early 1970s.
In 1972, 12-year-old Jesse moves with her parents and 4-year-old brother, Philip, from Philadelphia, where her father has once again been fired for his unconventional methods and beliefs as a Methodist minister, to Roanoke, Virginia, where he has found work as a counselor. While he is an intellectual idealist unable or unwilling to function in the practical world, Jesse’s deeply frustrated, emotionally erratic mother craves respectability and material comfort. Their marriage seems unhappy to Jesse, but their basic decency shows in bits and pieces throughout the novel. Having settled into Bent Tree, an apartment complex where the motley mix of residents struggles to pay the rent, innocent yet precocious Jesse begins seventh grade desperate to fit in but also afraid of her body’s pubescent changes. After popular Sheila rebuffs her, Jesse becomes soul mates with Jill, who believes her family has been cursed. Unfortunately true to Jill’s beliefs, her alcoholic mother disappears, leaving Jill and her younger siblings to fend for themselves until someone (maybe Jesse’s mom) calls in social services and Jill exits from Jesse’s life. Three years later, Sheila, whose popularity has faded since a scandal surrounding her dad’s sexuality, draws Jesse into her fantasy life involving Playboy Bunnies and her own incipient sadomasochism. Jesse also begins a relationship with potentially dangerous but pathetic bad-boy Dwayne. But by 10th grade, Jesse has turned into the accelerated student with smart friends she was always meant to be. Then Jill, now a devout born-again Christian, reappears to confuse and challenge the beliefs (or lack thereof) that Jesse’s been struggling with all along.
Steinke brings the world of Bent Tree to vivid life with a cast of secondary characters more sharply drawn than Jesse and particularly her parents, who are never quite fully realized on the page.