In this debut novel, an inquisitive young tomboy searches her small-town world for answers to long-held family secrets and weighty questions.
As she enters the summer season of 1965, 10-year-old Willie Mae comes to realize that she is something of an outlier in her traditional, deeply Christian family as well as in her small country town in North Carolina. Much to her mother’s chagrin, she prefers stacking wood, riding her bike, and wielding her older brother’s BB gun to playing with dolls and gushing about new dresses. She loathes Sunday school, covets transgressions, and mistrusts the religion to which her family is fervently devoted. Perhaps above all, Willie has a reputation for being a busybody and asking provocative questions when she should be minding her manners—a particularly taboo reputation for a young girl to have in her pious corner of the mid-20th-century rural South. This summer in Feral, Willie is determined to find out what killed her grand-uncle Billy, who is remembered by the family and the town as having a rather unsavory reputation. Billy was rumored to be charming and handsome but also something of a womanizer with a penchant for troublemaking. In her efforts to gather information from relatives and churchgoing acquaintances, Willie’s quest to solve this long-standing family mystery evolves into something much bigger: a gateway to coming-of-age contemplations about identity, religion, segregation, the confines of gender roles, death, and time’s ruthlessness. In this ambitious and often moving tale, Saraceno has a knack for convincingly rendering the internal experiences of a thoughtful young girl’s early encounters with imposing, big-picture questions. Further, the author’s depictions of country town summers from a bygone era are pleasurably atmospheric and her prose sparkles when she is rendering the subtleties of emotional incidents. That said, the novel reads as rather disjointed—more of a scattered collection of memories than a long-form, integrated narrative. Further, the book’s curation of recollections could have used a bit more punch at times.
A highly sensitive portrayal of a complicated country childhood that lacks cohesiveness.