Change–its ineluctability, the hopes and the fears it engenders–is the leitmotif of Tucker’s coming-of-age drama.
Byron is a defiant, whip-smart 15-year-old girl, as scornful of convention as her poet namesake, living in Louisiana bayou country in the early 1960s. Her guiding lights are her grandfather, because he’s â€œtakin’ me places I ain’t supposed to go and teachin’ me about things I ain’t suppose to know”; her father, for his decency, encouragement and security; and her biology teacher, for introducing her to the scientific method. Because she has not been raised as a bigot–racism, sexism and religious fundamentalism hold sway in her town–Byron also finds teachers deep in the swamp, African-Americans who give her a sense of joy in living and a dose of the metaphysical to complement her empiricism. The tale pivots on a latter-day Scopes trial, learning the hard way about the evolution–namely, its glacial pace–of cultural change, and the hideous things people will do to keep the very notion of change at bay. Tucker bracingly charts Byron’s innocent, adolescent landscape to one littered with death and mayhem, not to mention delineating the landscape itself: The life-giving decay of the swamp and the putrefying rot of the town is rendered palpable. It could be wished for more subtlety and conflict in the characters, though: There are the agents of good who are a little too wonderful, even in their follies and lapses; and there are the rest, the agents of darkness and the clueless foils who serve to amplify the radiance of the good. There are also instances when Tucker subverts the bright pacing of what is essentially a thriller with extended didactic asides–evolutionary theory is understandable, but the history of evangelism and the story of industrial papermaking less so–that feel like heavy-handed lessons from a young-adult novel. That said, the thriller in here is riveting.
An intelligent, sometimes annoying, but ultimately exciting exploration of intolerance, superstition and the laws of nature and humankind.