12-year-old Jane is the oldest of four children. She lives with her single mom and her two brothers and one sister in a worn but beloved house on the beach, where her Pulitzer-winning mom is apparently able to make a small living from writing poetry.
This summer, Jane inadvertently becomes the sidekick for Nellie Phipps, the preacher at church, with whom she goes around giving away bibles and searching for spiritual truth in some rather dubious places. A short trip in an air balloon during which Jane drops bibles from midair leads to a stint doing slave labor babysitting for a huge family of tiny messy children. Meanwhile, men keep appearing out of the blue, all of whom seem to have been her mother’s boyfriends at one time or another – whether they still are is hard to tell. Finally, there are old women with amazing hats and various illnesses, who must be prayed for and coddled. Thank goodness for Jane’s friend Ginny, who has a level head on her shoulders and a steady bead on her future as a fashion designer.
Jane tries to do the right thing and think the best of the people she meets – until she realizes that there is a reason that she keeps having negative, bitter thoughts and it’s not because she’s a bad person. These folks – Nellie Phipps and quite a few others – are behaving badly! They are taking advantage, being selfish, lying, and in general not being sterling examples of goodness.
These characters are delicious to find in a children’s book. Nellie Phipps, single-minded and outrageously self-centered despite her role as minister, rings absolutely true. How does a kid deal with someone like this? Probably a lot like Jane, who keeps hoping that Nellie (being a grown-up and a minister) has Jane’s and everyone else’s best interests at heart and is of course eventually bitterly disappointed.
A character with a bit part, Dr. Callahan as the town’s long-suffering doctor is priceless. He just wants a bit of peace, but he has to deal with all the old ladies and their ailments. At the funeral of one such old lady, Mrs. Parks, Dr. Callahan tries in vain to tell everyone that she had bursitis, not the thrombosis Mrs. Parks had complained of. Finally, he snaps, “I’m telling you, she was in the PINK of health. And that’s what I told her. The pink. The silly fool wanted to go into the hospital… It is my opinion that you send one old lady to the hospital and they all want to go.” This understandably leads to some heated (and hilarious) discussion, quite disrupting the funeral.
Jane’s mom is a bit of an enigma. She avoids most people and hates making public appearances, tending rather to float through life, tending to her children and making jam. That all these men suddenly return to her life this one summer is somewhat of an unconvincing coincidence – who are they and why did they all come back? Are any of them the fathers of Jane or the other kids? Which ones? Does it matter? I would think it does matter, and yet Jane eventually makes a conscious decision to not bring it up with either her mother or the one man who sticks around. (Another man suddenly runs off to marry a student, a third man apparently drowns – or does he? Another mystery, and a fourth lives a quiet life reading in his trailer).
There is so much to this deceptively simple book – I could go on and on about the various intriguing plot lines and characters. To summarize my favorite thing about the book – the messiness and strangeness of life can lead to important insights that flit through your thoughts and then vanish, altering your perception of the world forever. My library copy is bristling with post-its that I’ll have to pull off before I return it, so here is just one tiny example:
“But Mrs. Merriweather probably wouldn’t understand this. She was busy at her sister’s bringing berries. She has had another sort of day and will never know ours. Suddenly I realize that everyone in the whole world is, at the end of a day, staring at a dusky horizon, owner of a day that no one else will ever know. I see all those millions of different days crowded into the one.”
This is my favorite book of 2008, I think.
Gr. 4 - 7