Vetter (Poo Skadoo, 2015, etc.) offers a nostalgic look at two Iowa friends in her latest work of YA historical fiction.
Tomboy Kate experiences a childhood that is now the stuff of memory or legend. Spending her formative years in rural Iowa in the 1950s, Kate possesses freedoms and responsibilities few children can understand today. She braves the chicken coop to collect eggs, hauls drinking water to school, and helps to milk cows (“At our farm, milking was a family activity. We all walked the quarter mile to the barn, and we all had supporting roles: hay to throw, corn to carry, cows to chain, cats and flies to shoo, tails to hold, udders to empty”). Kate and her friend Sharley walk barefoot in the summer, spin on tire swings, agonize over penny candy, and play horseshoes. Kate’s world is small, comfortable, and enchanting. Sharley, an adventurous child, revels in spontaneity. She pushes Kate, serving as both a partner and a foil in her quest to live life to the fullest. But childhood does not ensure immunity against pain and fear. Sharley becomes ill and dies young, leaving a sense of sorrow at a life unfinished. Vetter’s short tale is a work of fiction, though she states early on that many parts of the story are largely “grounded in the truth.” Her folksy anecdotes are delightfully nuanced, bringing to life the culture of a ’50s Midwestern family. Some scenes read like a screenplay; farm wives hop in parked cars on trips to town, delighted to catch up on gossip, while children race in and out of the dime store blowing bubbles and men trade stories over beer. Yet Vetter’s wonderfully descriptive vignettes lack a connecting thread, tension, or narrative direction to tie all the sweet, and often funny, stories together. Sharley’s fate is not a surprise; it is mentioned on the book’s first page. But her sickness comes on abruptly in the volume’s final pages, without the foreshadowing that would have lent a bittersweet quality and depth to the glimpses of daily life the reader has seen. Sharley’s death remains a tragedy, and fully fleshing out its impact would have strengthened the story.
Though it bathes the past in a rose-colored light, this novel delivers a lively glimpse of supposedly simpler times.