Boerner follows the trials of a girl’s childhood in 1970s Arkansas in this debut novel.
When 10-year-old Gracie Lee Abbott walks up to a church pulpit, her pastor asks her if she’s there to be saved. “No sir,” she tells him, “I just came up to say hello and ask you to pray for my Daddy. He’s mean to Momma, he drinks too much beer, and I think he’s probably going to Hell.” It isn’t what the pastor is expecting to hear, but it’s what’s been on Gracie’s mind. Her father’s drinking has created a great deal of stress in her household, as have the ceaseless rains that threaten to drown her family’s cotton crop. Her admission to the pastor has some unintentional consequences—not the least of which is a full-immersion baptism for herself—that start the girl off on a year of confrontations and discoveries. The greatest is a mysterious gray house at the edge of her family’s property, where an unknown man recently shot himself. As Gracie attempts to learn French, meet Elvis, and wean herself off of dolls, her precociousness sets in motion a series of events that shake up her life and force her to grow up faster than she expected. Boerner’s prose is a wonderful medium for unspooling Gracie’s story, imbued with all the snark, wonder, and colorful details that characterize childhood. She expertly draws Gracie and her family, including her erratic, brutish father, her harried, no-nonsense mother, and her chirpy, imaginative younger sister, making them endearing and infuriating in equal measure. The book feels long at more than 300 pages, as the narrative meanders for much of its length, but Gracie’s voice is captivating enough to make readers trust in Boerner’s storytelling. The ending isn’t shocking but is affecting and earned. The author addresses real, high-stakes issues without slathering them in melodrama or saccharine sentimentality, and her book hearkens back to an older YA tradition of stories of plucky preteen girls, spooky houses, and inevitable tragedies that help mark the turning point from childhood to adolescence.
A stirring novel with a distinctive young narrator.