A young black teen faces uncertainty about his future after his mother unexpectedly dies in this subdued novel set in the South in the early 1950s.
Hank Kemp and his mother, Mary, have lived simply in a poverty-stricken community after Hank’s dad, Earl, left them when Hank was three. Now 13, Hank excels in school and even wins the local and state spelling bees.
After Mary is killed when an electrical short in their shoddy home’s Christmas tree lights sparks a fire, Lillie immediately takes Hank in. However, he’s soon taken away by child welfare and sent to a foster home because Lillie is on welfare and not allowed to raise him. A concerned teacher, a kind attorney, and various community members quickly pull together to get Hank out of foster care and back to Lillie.
Chronologically written, the story is grammatically taut, and the author handles dialect adeptly when it comes to Earl: “. . .if this shack ain’t good anuff for you, git to steppin.’” In addition, details such as mentions of then-popular songs, the Ed Sullivan show, and Pat Boone’s white buck shoes add some historical spark.
Yet the narrative lacks a gripping storyline because solutions fall into place too easily; greater struggle would have made it more compelling. And while the main characters are likable, they often lack emotional authenticity, such as Hank’s flat reaction to his mother’s sudden and horrific death. He asks, “Where is my mama? . . .His voice trembled with emotion.” Beyond that, little reaction is tangible.
Additionally, descriptions are adequate, but unoriginal: The assistant principal is “a chubby brown-skinned fellow with horn rimmed [sic] glasses” and “thick, bushy eyebrows.”
All told, while the author delivers a fluid reading experience, the lackluster plot and a dearth of tension dampen the story’s overall appeal.
Also available in hardcover and ebook.