|This feature is presented by guest blogger, K.E.Weeks.|
The story begins in the early-1930s in a small town, Cayuta, in upstate New York. The central feature of the town is the prison, known as The Hill, where the father of the protagonist, Jessica, is the warden. When the family across the street is unable to pay the mortgage on their home, they rent it to a visiting German professor and his family. The professor’s daughter, Elisa, and Jessica become fast friends. This part of the story is entertaining and, for the most part, believable. The girls, while young acting for their ages (high school), are interesting enough. They become obsessed with a “lifer” at the prison, Slater Carr, who plays the bugle and other instruments in the prison band. There are several intriguing subplots regarding Jessica’s brother Seth, her father, the inmate, and other townspeople. The characters, even minor ones, are quirky and memorable. There are quite a few plot twists, which gives the story some pizzazz.
And, yet, three things bother me about this part of the book. One, the girls are overly obsessed with literature. They discuss T.S. Eliot, Constantine Cavafy, and Sara Teasdale. Having spent a lot of time with well-educated high schoolers, I find this forced. When I hear high schoolers discuss literature, it is usually to say how long-winded Emerson or Hawthorne was, not to recommend this poet or that essayist, especially not lesser-known ones.
Second, the story is mainly narrated by Jessica, but every few chapters the inmate Slater Carr narrates two or three pages. This is incongruous. If the chapters by Carr were better developed, perhaps the construction would work, but they are not. Carr remains too underdeveloped to be a main character, and yet he is supposed to be one. The reader cannot relate to him and the chapters by him stick out.
Thirdly, this part of the book concerns itself a lot with suicide. Jessica writes about contemplating suicide, and the girls discuss it. Later on, (spoiler alert!) a minor character commits suicide. This would be OK for a high school book, but the rest of the book is too short and immature for high schoolers. It strikes me as a middle schooler book with high school themes, a bad mix.
About three-fourths of the way through the book, there is an exciting climax with several plot twists, including the sudden death of a main character. If the story ended there, I might give it three stars (with a warning regarding the suicide obsession), but it does not. Here is where the book goes haywire.
The rest of the story — about fifty pages worth — is “told” in letters from Jessica, Elisa, and a couple of minor characters who suddenly take center stage. The letters span 1934 – 1946-- twelve years! What??? The first 176 pages of the book cover less than eighteen months! (Spoiler alert!) Elisa moves back to Germany, just as things are heating up for WWII. She writes about the changes in her homeland, including joining the German Youth Program. Jessica, who has been a tomboy the entire book, suddenly falls in love with a minor character. Other minor (and major) characters disappear, never to be heard from again. The prison, which is such a key feature in the first part, is hardly ever mentioned. A Jewish German family from Cayuta goes to Berlin to give a concert and is treated as one would expect. (I find the fact that they would visit Germany in 1935 utterly unbelievable. A lot of news regarding the treatment of Jews may not be escaping Germany in 1935, but certainly enough was to give Jews pause about visiting.)
It is as if the author suddenly wanted to “cram” all sorts of other historical events — WWII Germany, the Jewish Holocaust, US fighting in the Pacific in 1942, and others — into an already complete book. The result is a mish-mash and a great detraction and distraction from the previous 176 pages. While the beginning is quirky and witty, and the middle has clever plot twists, the end spoils it. Thus, I give this book two stars (out of five).