A pleasantly wry, spunky debut, set in the Reagan era, about a fatherless girl who uses her brains as the way out of her mother’s hopeless welfare state.
Ten-year-old Evelyn Bucknow, plain but brainy, has learned something about the inequities of the world from her less-than-privileged, conservative vantage point in Kerrville, Kansas. Her Vietnam vet grandfather has disowned Evelyn’s mother, Tina, for her early sins and still considers her a “whore.” Evelyn’s grandmother, Eileen, is an Evangelical Reaganite who doesn’t believe Tina will make it to heaven. And Evelyn’s own fourth-grade classmates rub in her state of impecunious fatherlessness. Yet Evelyn is at the top of her class, winning the science prize over the town’s rich girl because our heroine plays by the rules. And even when her first love and neighbor, handsome kleptomaniac Travis Rowley, falls ungratefully for Evelyn’s beautiful new friend Deena, Evelyn resists the entrapments of failure that the welfare state seems to expect of her. Much as in another recent storyteller clashing with a dim-bulbed mom (Stephanie Rosenfeld’s Massachusetts, California, Timbuktu, p. 638), Evelyn finds her wits sharpened by adversity and by her mother’s ill planning—in this case, her getting pregnant by a kind but married boss, who skips town. Still, when it seems the new baby’s retardation is the demonstration of God’s just deserts, Evelyn finds strength—and Moriarty pumps literary vigor into her narrative—by reversing a reader’s expectations. Evelyn’s voice is a lone, steely cry against the chorus of small-town righteousness for which President Reagan’s TV speeches form the background noise. And while Moriarty is no fancy prose stylist, she listens carefully to the speech of her characters, and Evelyn and Tina’s voices, especially, ring true without sounding dopey or sentimental.
Among the plethora of first novels tracking preteen daughters of sorry single mothers, Moriarty’s gutsy opener is hard not to like.