A debut novel tells the story of an 8-year-old boy acclimating to life in a new town.
Ohio, 1954. Jesse Hall’s parents’ marriage is on the rocks. His father gambles away their money, and his mother, Viola, suffers from mental illness. After Viola attempts suicide and then becomes pregnant, she takes Jesse away to start a new life without the boy’s father. After a brief stay with her parents that doesn’t go well, Viola and Jesse are forced to find a place of their own. They end up in Sabina, “The Eden of Ohio,” where a kindly landlord gives them a discounted apartment and an old sewing machine for Viola to make a living. Jesse meets some kind people, including Karen, the pretty woman who works at the Five and Dime, and Lynn Ott, another 8-year-old who doesn’t have a father. He also meets bullies, both young and old, who are unsympathetic to his difficult past. There is even a risk that a social worker will remove him from his mother’s care. Through that long first summer in Sabina, Jesse longs to live with any of his three half siblings and for his parents to get back together. He remembers the first rule his grandfather taught him—“Do no harm”—and says his prayers for his family: “I pray for healing for my mom and dad. I thank you for your blessings. Amen.” In his series opener, Hess writes in a measured prose that captures the subtleties of Jesse’s thoughts with precision and lyricism. Here the author describes Jesse’s reaction after his mother is hospitalized following a suicide attempt and his father tells them they have to move: “I turned the car radio on and pressed the button to a station playing Deck the Halls. I didn’t want to talk anymore. I stared out the car window. Kids were getting on buses. I kept manipulating the jacket zipper, but it stayed stuck in the middle while it was getting colder outside.” The book is not especially plot heavy, but it is a page-turner nonetheless. It harkens back to coming-of-age literature of a much earlier era, where lessons are gleaned slowly from observing the lives of other people.
A well-crafted, satisfying family tale.