Sometimes you read a book knowing that it won an award, and all you can think is “huh?” Other times knowing that the award has already been achieved allows you to pay more attention to the excellent qualities of the book, to look for what that committee saw. I think this book benefited from my previous knowledge, allowing me to appreciate why the award was given to this particular book.
The setting was excellent. The town, both in 1918 and 1936, was carefully drawn and the sense of place was vivid.
The characters were well done, though I hesitate to add the qualifier “very”. Lettie and Ruthanne were a little too generic spunky girls, Miss Sadie a bit too exotic, etc. However, Vanderpool did manage to juggle a cast of thousands without ever losing me, and that deserves its own type of praise.
The pacing was good. I was far (far!) more interested in Jinx’s story than I was in what Abilene was doing or thinking, but the Abilene sections moved along at a pretty good clip, so I didn’t get too impatient even though I thought what was going on in the historical sections was inherently much more compelling. There is a part of me that thinks the book might have been stronger if it was just the Jinx bits, but at the same time I can see how the slightly removed, but still knowing narrative perspective in those sections would have been difficult to pull off in a book-length format. The frame gave the historical actions more weight and consequence.
The plot was very good, though I’m not entirely convinced it rises to the level of distinguished. I will admit that the courtroom scene made me cheer as I drove along listening to the audiobook (which, as an aside, was FABULOUS. I hope the narrator won some kind of award. She sounded twelve, but she handled all of the accents smoothly.) But the subplot about Miss Sadie and Ned seemed farfetched, and while it somewhat resonated with themes of fitting in and family, I think its removal would have strengthened the book because it didn’t really add anything.
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It really frustrated me that Abilene is not told that Jinx was her father. It was obvious to me from the start, and even Abilene suspects it for quite some time. I can maybe understand Miss Sadie and Shady making the choice not to tell her, but no one else in town? Not a single person – all of whom seemed to know immediately who she was – ever said something like “wow, your daddy was one smart fellow”? His cons led directly to huge changes for the town, and even if those changes were almost immeadiately overshadowed by the influenza epidemic, that doesn’t mean they disappeared or that people forgot them completely.
For all that I loved the book, I am not entirely sure that, had I been on the committee that year, I would have voted for this one to take the top prize, though I would have happily given it an honor. I’m not entirely sure what I would’ve handed the prize to. It’s been two years since I read One Crazy Summer, which I think was my prediction going into that year’s announcement. I was hugely impressed with Dark Emperor, which surprised me because I’m not normally a poetry person.