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A story set in rural Georgia before World War II that introduces readers to an odd group of characters brought together by a woman ahead of her time.

Stefaniak (The Turk and My Mother, 2004, etc.) sets the stage for likable narrator Gladys Cailiff, a smart, witty and incisive 11-year-old who lives in the tiny town of Threestep, Ga. Gladys’ story begins with the arrival of Miss Grace Spivey, the town’s new schoolteacher, a diminutive redhead with a taste for adventure and a propensity for stirring up trouble. As it turns out, Miss Spivey spent some time in Baghdad and decides to duplicate its streets in Threestep after reading parts of The Arabian Nights to her enraptured students. She also very loosely adapts some of those stories into a play that, along with turkey shoots and dunking booths, they hope will draw visitors from miles around to Threestep. But Miss Spivey doesn’t do anything the easy way. She riles up the local school superintendent with her persistence in teaching the “colored” children who are not allowed decent textbooks. Theo Boykin, the Cailiffs’ young neighbor and a budding genius, is the main object of Miss Spivey’s efforts to give the area’s black community a crack at equality, but her efforts—much admired by the Cailiff family—always seem to go askew. When she brings in a camel herder and his camels for the big night, all of Miss Spivey’s past indiscretions seem destined to catch up with her. Young Gladys is a great narrator, but when May, her perennially pregnant older sister, takes over, the book veers into a mind-numbing story within a story within a story within a story that makes the reader long for Gladys to boot all of those other storytellers and retake the helm.

A simple, often engaging tale that unravels in the final third when the author abandons Georgia for Baghdad and never gets back on track.  

Pub Date: Sept. 6th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-393-06310-3
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2010