In this debut historical coming-of-age novel, a father and son attempt to connect during a cross-country road trip.
Ten-year-old Keeper, born during the Great Depression, earned his name during his near-fatal birth, when his father, Chance, proclaimed, “A chip off the old block, and a keeper for sure!” Keeper is homebound with his mother and blind half brother, Early, but he admires his often absent father, who crisscrosses the country as a salesman. Other family members aren’t as enthusiastic about Chance, however, because they know of his weaknesses for women and alcohol, but Keeper is too young to understand his father’s flaws. Instead, he and his brother cherish the postcards that Chance sends them. Keeper passes the time with a trash-talking tomboy named Jonnie Prettyboy, but when they’re implicated in a fatal crime, they must keep a terrible secret. As Keeper enters adolescence, he gets an opportunity to travel with Chance, but the father-son road trip slowly spirals toward tragedy. This is a vivid, unflinching account of a World War II–era childhood in which a seemingly close family is torn apart by secret lives and hidden vices. It illuminates how civilians lived their lives as major events, such as the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, loomed in the background. Davis’ prose stays true to a young boy’s perspective, and he carefully develops each of his characters. Although some of the characters’ language feels too coarse and current for the 1940s setting at times, Davis manages to re-create the era by using a wide range of historical references, from popular culture to contemporary news events. Hardship lingers everywhere, from Early’s blindness to Keeper’s grandfather’s painkiller addiction, and even Keeper’s strong mother, Alva, seems long-suffering. The novel has its twists and turns, but its finale is genuinely shocking, as it contrasts an adolescent’s triumphant rite of passage with an adult’s self-inflicted defeat.
A carefully crafted family saga, set in an oft-forgotten place and time, that shows how love and loyalty can’t always save a family from disaster.