Sisters Liz and Bean (whose real name is Jean) have grown up with their artist/flake of a mom, moving constantly and dealing with her occasional disappearing acts. Then one time, she doesn’t come back. Liz and Bean manage for a while, but when people start poking their noses around, they decide to up and go across the country to visit the uncle they’ve never met in their mom’s hometown of Byler, Virginia.
Their Uncle Tinsley takes them in, but they find that living in small-town Virginia has its own set of challenges. (Especially in 1970-71, which is when this takes place.) In addition to the whole new-kids-in-town feeling, the girls find they have to deal with a lot of Small Town History. The Hollidays used to be the mill owners, as well as the Big People in Town, but have been fading over the years. The current mill manager — Mr. Maddox — is a real piece of work (that’s being nice; ominous music started in my brain about page 100), and there’s a bit of a feud between him and Tinsley. And that only intensifies when Maddox assaults Liz.
Two things I think Walls really got: 1970s politics and smart kids. The former was evident not only in the race relations, which admittedly she just breezed over, but in the politics of sex crimes. While the way the town and the legal system treated Liz was terrible, I was glad Walls wasn’t tempted to modernize this. (Though I wonder how “modern” the legal system really is in this area.) It helped the authenticity and feel of the novel overall.
I also appreciated that she didn’t glorify either small towns or the South; it’s all laid out there, the good and the bad, for better or for worse. And for some people — like Liz and Bean’s mom — it is worse. But that said, family doesn’t necessarily mean blood. And in tough times, good people stick together.
It’s a quick read, and well worth the time.
Rated: Mild, for parental neglect, some mild language, and an off-screen attempted rape scene.