Life was tough in the mountains of northeast Georgia during the Great Depression. And it was particularly hard for women, who had virtually no rights and no say in important matters, especially if they were unmarried. The rural mountain life also was tough for children, who were expected to work hard, always obey, not be heard, and waste no time on enjoyment or fun.
In Faye Gibbons’ excellent new young-adult novel, a hard, unforgiving brand of backwoods religion also holds sway in young Halley’s life. Her father, Jim Owenby, recently has died, and Halley, her mother Kate, and her young brother Robbie have been forced to move in with Kate’s mother and father. Halley’s grandfather, Pa Franklin, is a backwoods fundamentalist preacher who cuts no one any slack. He is quick to judge, criticize, preach, punish and condemn. In his eyes, the road to hell is very short and most people already are on it.
Pa Franklin also takes, or tries to take, any money earned by his wife, his daughter and his granddaughter. And he even reads their mail and sometimes throws it away before they can see it. It is his way, he thinks, of protecting them from their own helplessness.
The author grew up in northern Georgia, in a large mountain family, and she has gotten to know many of the region’s people, mill towns, and other communities. Her central character, Halley Owenby, is fourteen and dreams mainly of getting an education and somehow gaining a level of control over her own life.
The actions and confrontations that unfold in this new book are gritty, intense and sometimes dark. Yet the combined powers of hope, love, honesty and stubborn effort finally shine through and light the way to brighter possibilities for Halley and those around her.
Faye Gibbons is a superb storyteller and writer, with a fine-tuned ear for regional speech, a sharp eye for detail, and an unhidden love for her characters–even the ones who make us shudder, cringe and tighten our fists in frustration at their repeated refusals to listen, think, and change.
– Si Dunn