Garvin’s (And They Came, 2017, etc.) latest novel offers a reflection of one girl’s coming-of-age in small-town Texas in the 1960s.
Billie Jo Dunstan has returned to her hometown of Viney to help her mother move. Along the way, she can’t help but to reflect on the changing times. Short, scattered vignettes about friends and family illustrate an account of her childhood, which she spent on the cusp of the counterculture. Garvin has an entertaining way with metaphor. Billie Jo describes the onslaught of memories during her journey thusly: “Splat! Hit one ghost. Then another.” Growing up in a small town as the youngest of three sisters, Billie Jo developed a talent for “making [her] own fun.” Among her exploits were tagging along to her sister’s drive-in theater outings, growing brine shrimp marketed as “Sea-Monkeys,” and idly speculating about the world around her. Her models for womanhood are diverse and reflect the times: her sisters Beth Ann and Dena Jo; a cosmopolitan cousin from Arizona, Henrietta, who goes by the nickname “Hank”; and a seemingly perfect Southern belle named Lacy Jean. Billie Jo’s fantasies of teenage life hint at possibility, just as her family history does; she recounts, in great detail, her ancestors’ gruesome experiences fleeing war and surviving the arid West Texas landscape, while tracing her family’s origins back to Scotland in the 1600s. Garvin portrays this history with unflinching honesty, never shying away from depicting the overt racial bigotry of the time and place. Interwoven with Billie Jo’s adventures is the story of Ernesto, also known as “Big Daddy,” a local rock musician who leaves Texas in search of fame. Together, their stories illustrate how social change affected the slow-paced, deeply Christian town. While Ernesto hunts for rock band Santana in Los Angeles, Billie Jo takes trips to the local soda shop, where she hears the music of the Beach Boys and the Cowsills. Garvin is at her best when offering these cheeky nods to the past, never getting bogged down in nostalgia.
A winning narrator enlivens a charming tale of a town facing modernity.