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A year or so ago, my sister Tudy gave me a book she had enjoyed: Whistling in the Dark by Lesley Kagen. I was transported to a small town in Wisconsin in 1959, a time and place where innocence prevails. Or does it? It was a wonderful coming-of-age mystery I couldn’t put down.
When I was preparing for my trip to Pennsylvania for the Highlights Founders Workshop I wrote about in my last post, I went to the bookstore looking for an airplane book, something to keep me entertained that would transport me away from a long, boring trip. I was happy run across another book by Lesley Kagen, and I picked up a copy of Land of a Hundred Wonders.
I have to tell you, I love quirky characters. It’s always fun to run across one, and a really good one will likely keep me reading more than any other single thing an author can do. Land of a Hundred Wonders, takes place in the small town of Cray Ridge, Kentucky. The main character, a champion of quirkiness, Gibby McGraw had been in a terrible accident. Her parents had been killed and Gibby had suffered a serious head injury. She is NQR (Not Quite Right) because of it. She lives with her grandfather and cleans tables at his diner to earn her keep. His deep love for Gibby becomes clear early in the book. He spends a lot of his efforts trying to find ways to help Gibby to become QR (Quite Right) again. It is Gibby’s greatest wish. She believes becoming QR is the only way her dead mother can have peace. Gibby decides the best way to do this is to solve the mystery of a murder. She has found the body of the richest man in town, and she intends to solve his murder and write about it in her newspaper. Yup. She has her own newspaper, Gibby's Gazette, and spends much of her spare time writing stories about the townspeople. It’s a clever device used by Ms. Kagen to give us a lot of back-story without being in any way obvious about it.
Now I mentioned I love quirky characters. (A favorite quirky-character book is Audrey, Wait by Robin Benway. It’s one of the funniest books you’ll ever read and Audrey’s best friend, Victoria, is one of the best quirky characters ever created. Check it out. But I digress. Back to our regularly scheduled programming.) This book doesn’t just have just one. The town is full of quirky characters. Gibby’s best friend Clever, Miss Florida, Vietnam vet Billy, Sneaky Tim Ray Holloway, and others. Yet, if you’ve spent any time in a small town as I have, you will realize Ms. Kagen hasn’t created too many quirky characters. This is the way small towns seem to be. I had no trouble buying into this story populated with so many quirky characters, some pretty shady, but most caring and kind.
This is a coming-of-age story, although an odd one, since Gibby is twenty years old. (I do think the publisher is missing a bet by not marketing Kagen's books as Young Adult or at least crossover.) But remember, she’s NQR. Challenged by some frightening happenings – Grampa’s heart attack, the impending birth of Clever’s baby, Buster Malloy’s murder, on-going abuse by Sneaky Tim Ray Holloway, and others, Gibby begins to find her way out of the severe loss of memory she suffered as a consequence of her accident. As layers peel away, we discover, along with Gibby, who the people of Cray Ridge really are and more than one mystery is solved for us and for Gibby.
This charming book is not only a coming-of-age story, but a mystery and a love story as well. Much of it is laugh-out-loud funny (just ask the folks on my flight who probably think I’m a pretty quirky character), but keep the tissues at hand. You will be touched by this sweet and funny story. Oh, and I just found out Ms. Kagen has another book out -- Tomorrow River, and another one coming out in September, Good Graces. I guess I'll have to make more trips to the bookstore!