Banta tells the story of a teenage orphan struggling to start over in small-town Indiana in this debut novel.
It’s the autumn of 1960. When his parents and brother are killed suddenly in a car accident, 17-year-old Malcolm “Weed” Clapper is forced to move from Scranton, Pennsylvania, to live with his grandmother in a tiny town in Indiana. With an injured leg that restricts his movement, Weed is self-conscious around his new peers, particularly the girls—and women—at school. There’s much about his new home that confuses him, like the fact that the local homeless man keeps calling him “Joey” or the strange thumping sounds his grandmother makes at night. In addition, Weed encounters difficulties acclimating to the entrenched racism that categorizes the opinions of his new neighbors, which ranges from a stuffy disdain for blacks to a violent hatred of them. They warn Weed, in friendly and not-so-friendly ways, against mixing with the town’s African-American population. When Weed learns of the strong Ku Klux Klan presence in the area, he is tempted to leave town, but then an illicit romance with his young English teacher convinces him to stay. Weed sets to work befriending the town’s outcasts and untouchables, but when the Klan begins to target one of his new friends, he must decide just how committed he is to his new life—since standing up for his beliefs may just put that life at risk. The novel’s structure is epistolary, told through a series of journal entries—“I figure Kerouac writes,” explains Weed, “and it’s a known fact that he’s cool”—the perfect format for the hero’s jokey, irreverent tone. Through Weed, Banta displays her gift for fresh, evocative language: “Cotton’s rolling chuckle came from so deep inside his chest you would have thought he started it yesterday.” Nothing in the plot or the characters feels entirely original, from the sensitive narrator hiding behind derision to the collection of colorful townsfolk. But Banta’s versions are well-executed and mostly endearing, and while the ending perhaps is a little too tidy to be believable, it still manages to satisfy.
A spirited tale about finding a new place in the world.