Ten interconnected stories about two kids growing up in suburban Michigan during the 1970s and coping with the erratic behavior of their unstable mother and her eccentric suitor.
Both winsome and damaged, Paige is a high-strung, creative type hit especially hard by single-motherhood when her husband goes on a “trip” and never returns. She drives the kids to school wearing a mink coat over her pajamas, and dabbles in porcupine-quill crafts after her babysitter, Susie Medecinehat, shows her how to extract the quills from road-kill carcasses. Annie and her little brother, Gus, adore their mother, even as they are afraid of what she might do next. Practical in her way, she takes the kids on a “vacation” by hotwiring her absent neighbor’s station wagon, with no idea of how to stop the purloined vehicle. After they make it back home, thanks in part to a possibly dangerous hitchhiker, she voluntarily commits herself to a psychiatric facility, leaving the kids with her brittle, childless sister Claire. Once released, Paige struggles to get well, while fending off the advances of smitten electrician Shepherd Nash. A part-time party singer with the gentleness of a poet, Shepherd displays a childlike enthusiasm that wins over the father-figure-hungry kids, while frightening their mother, who seems to suspect he might be even crazier than she is. Shepherd’s over-the-top courtship style is best exemplified when he gifts his lady love with possibly the ugliest piano ever made, salvaged from a barroom and covered with the etched-in phone numbers of former patrons. Shepherd’s never-say-die attitude—he asks for Paige’s hand some 12 times—is often pathetic but also somewhat noble, and he and Paige make a deeply flawed but interesting pair. While slight in effect, Litzenburger’s second novel (after The Widower, 2006) boasts a winning narrator in eight-year-old Annie, who is forced to grow up quickly as the adults around her fall apart. And bright, defenseless first-grader Gus just might break your heart.
Deft, sensitive coming-of-age tale.