Life in a 1920s North Carolina mountain community is warmly detailed through letters 12-year-old Arie Mae Sparks writes to a cousin she’s never met.
Lonely despite her loving and dependable family, Arie longs for a real friend. She sets her sights on a visitor: Tom Wells from Baltimore, whose family is visiting the nearby settlement school as a work of mercy and cultural embassy. Arie boldly offers Tom just what he needs—an adventure—even as he gives Arie a sense of herself as storyteller. Dowell’s voice for Arie is bright, earnest and observant, and Arie’s mountain speech with its formal phrasing and different grammar is richly and sweetly conveyed. Dowell conveys a difficult way of life without pity. As Arie says of Harlan, the abandoned boy informally adopted by her parents, “You can’t help but admire a boy like that. Even when he’s just snuck under the table and tied your shoelaces to the table leg. You might clobber him but you stay filled with admiration all the same.” Traditional ways and new ones, well-off city folk and struggling, self-sufficient mountain people are shown in contrast, each changing the other. A passing reference to "a clutch of Indian squaws" is unfortunate.
Still, Arie is a superbly appealing girl, and the details and encounters of her daily life offer a fine glimpse of a particular time and place. (Historical fiction. 8-12)