When her mother falls into a catatonic depression, 12-year-old Ellen finds herself whisked from lively Baltimore to an obscure Blue Ridge mountain.
It’s 1942, and Ellen’s daddy is off fighting in the war and Mama’s hit one of her sad spells. Unable to cope, Ellen summons Mama’s forbidding spinster sister, Pearl, who takes them both back to Virginia to live with her. There, Aunt Pearl tends to Mama while Ellen attends a one-room schoolhouse. One boy, a nearly illiterate 15-year-old named Russell, rarely comes to school, and when he does he smells strongly of the skunks he traps. When Aunt Pearl sends Ellen to Russell’s house with food, she meets Russell’s abused mother, a childhood friend of her mother’s, and his abusive father. An odd friendship develops, in which Russell shows Ellen some of the beauties of the mountain forest, and she tutors him in reading and math. Meanwhile, Russell’s mother tries to help Ellen’s mother heal. Told from Ellen’s first-person point of view, the novel has good sentence-level writing but falls short in two key points. Ellen often seems an observer in her own story, describing what happens to her but never really influencing the action. (Even her initial call for help happens offstage.) Also, the narrative arcs of the characters fail to satisfy—it’s hard to see what each person wants or gains. The age difference between Russell and Ellen may cause some readers to find the relationship a bit creepy. The novel adheres to a white default.
Smoothly written but not cohesive or memorable. (Historical fiction. 8-12)