"Mama died hard. You should know that."
Thus begins the sparkling upper-middle-grade debut from adult fiction writer Bayard (Roosevelt’s Beast, 2014, etc.). Fourteen-year-old Melia, resilient, pragmatic, a talented mechanic, self-described Gas Station Pagan, and quite often profane, has been running the family's filling station in rural Walnut Ridge, Virginia, ever since Mama took sick months ago. It ain't easy, what with the Depression and younger siblings Earle and Janey to care for, but she doesn't have a choice—Earle and Janey's daddy is in the state pen, and Melia never knew a thing about her own father. Desperate to keep the family together after Mama dies, she hires a drunken hobo who falls off a coal truck to impersonate her parent. Sobered up, Hiram reveals a flair for wild invention, which helps them stave off the machinations of Harley Blevins, "emperor" of Standard Oil, who plots to destroy their business and, in doing so, nearly destroys their family. Told in Melia's brisk voice, with fast pacing and a strong cast of characters (all white, reflecting the demographic of the setting), the story hurtles to a surprising, honest conclusion—the "you" addressed in the first line is a tender surprise.
A grand adventure. (Historical fiction. 10-14)