Imaginary correspondence between Elvis Presley and an Atlanta schoolgirl forms the unlikely basis for a sweet and gripping first novel.
Granted, the set-up is contrived. Fourteen-year-old Achsa McEachern writes a fan letter to Presley in 1955 after hearing “That’s All Right, Mama”; he thinks she’s a man because of her name and her sophisticated way with words; when she corrects him, he tells her to keep writing anyway, and he asks if she will help him with his grammar. As the fiercely ambitious Elvis puts it in a letter: “It is just I don’t want NOTHING not NOTHING AT ALL to hold me back.” Presley’s letters credibly reproduce the personality we know from countless biographies: intelligent but uneducated, ambitious but insecure, genuinely religious and wildly sexy. It’s Thomas’s fictional creation, Achsa, however, who really commands our attention. Born with a harelip, persecuted by her redneck classmates because of her plainness and her brains, she’s further troubled by her parents’ fraught marriage. Her creepily devout father is pathologically jealous of her beautiful mother, who clearly has secrets to keep. Achsa’s unhappiness and loneliness spill out in her letters. Elvis responds warmly and thoughtfully; on the brink of stardom, he too needs someone to confide in as his world changes with blinding speed. The two correspond over the next 14 months. The developments in Achsa’s life—a sudden death that could be suicide, revelation of a long-hidden relationship—might be melodramatic if they weren’t chronicled with such painful fidelity to the agonized self-consciousness of a smart, sensitive teenager who longs to fit in but also knows that she’s destined for better things than high-school popularity. The ending is sad but triumphant for Achsa; added poignancy comes from readers’ knowledge that Elvis’s hopes and dreams will be both fulfilled and horribly betrayed.
A touching coming-of-age tale, deepened rather than cheapened by the heroine’s connection to the King.