With its combination of Southern Gothic melodrama and profound teen anxiety, this well-written tale of a brave, bright girl’s struggle to fend off terrible domestic violence and safeguard an abused baby provides fine reading for young adults. Author Dolores Richardson may be relatively unknown, but she belongs in the company of top adolescent genre writers such as Sarah Dessen, Ally Carter and Meg Cabot.
The setting is tiny Cordele, Georgia. The year is 1947. Only weeks after plucky 14-year-old Grace Johnson has endured the sudden death of her beloved Mama, her harsh father brings two monsters into the house: Grace’s new stepmother, Laura Lee, is a heartless shrew who beats the girl and stabs her in the shoulder with dinner forks; her beefy older stepbrother, Ira, is a conniving liar who smears Grace’s good name, shoves her around and tries to molest her. The only joy in Grace Johnson’s life is the half-crippled, half-black, nameless two-year-old she calls “Nicholas,” a neglected leftover of Laura Lee’s sordid past. “I really did feel Nicholas was a miracle baby,” Grace muses, rubbing the boy’s twisted legs with peanut oil.
This is pretty dark stuff–Grace is even kidnapped and buried alive–but Richardson has an eye and an ear for redemption. Not only is her resourceful teen a survivor, she’s an award-winning essayist with college scholarship offers who emerges as a front-page heroine, and she has some good people on her side: kindly Doc Wilson and his wife; loyal schoolmates Karl and Merl Everett; a sympathetic history teacher named Thompson, and, most intriguingly, the ghost of a slain Civil War soldier, 16-year-old Adam Piersall Wentworth, who speaks to Grace in her dreams.
The novelist goes over the top here and there (one too many savage beatings) and she hits a few sour cultural notes (no one used “Ms.” in 1947), but this exciting story of adolescent courage is, by any measure, a sure winner.