A Midwestern boyhood marked by tragedy and triumph.
Guhl's charming debut novel, set in 1960s small-town Wisconsin, shares many thematic concerns with Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, an affectionate homage underscored when the protagonist is assigned that classic novel in his English class. Delmar, our hero, is a bullied, underweight high school sophomore struggling with persecution from the school's burnout "grits" and, more dramatically, the recent murder of his policeman father and the worrying decline of his seriously ill mother. Del's journey from frightened pushover to confident, resourceful young man is aided by an endearingly ragtag group of allies, including his irascible grandfather, a brash juvenile delinquent, a churchgoing English teacher, and the school's sole black student, a serious-minded young beauty named Opal. Their campaign against the town's corrupt police department provides mild thrills and gentle life lessons in equal measure, all made palatable by Guhl's control of tone and way with character details; the narrative never pushes its progressive agenda, instead allowing the reader to inhabit Del's richly drawn world and draw his or her own conclusions. The setting of Neenah, Wisconsin, is vividly rendered, skirting simple nostalgia with well-observed, specific peculiarities of time and place, and Del and his companions are fully drawn personalities whose hopes, fears, and embarrassments resonate with the familiar, sweet ache of teenage growing pains.
This tale of a teen's maturation doesn't reinvent the wheel—Harper Lee can probably rest easy—but Guhl's familiar story rolls by with enough charm and heart to make it a worthwhile ride.