Pam Webber’s The Wiregrass (August 2015) is a lovely coming-of-age story set in rural Alabama in 1969. Webber’s beautiful evocation of place, with its quirks and feisty characters, is superb, and her mastery of dialect is sure.
Our narrator is fourteen-year-old Nettie Campbell, en route to “Ain’t” Pitty and Uncle Ben’s house for the summer. This yearly visit with her various “cuzzins” has been the highlight of her life for as long as she can remember. What comes with summer freedom? Practical jokes, of course, and the children continue their yearly tradition of releasing streams of toilet paper on neighbors’ houses.
But this year is different. Terrible things are going on in Crystal Springs. A little girl disappears. A mysterious icehouse in the backwoods might be the home for evil deeds. The children are continually warned to avoid the rough and scary men that roam the community. All of this is a strong set-up for Nettie’s realization of the horrors of the real world.
If I were reviewing this book for a YA audience, I would recommend it highly. However, the publisher chose to market The Wiregrass as adult fiction and there I feel it falls short.
Other than the children, which are nicely drawn, all other characters seem to narrowly inhabit a good/bad stratum with little complexity. The story is slow to begin as Webber takes us through descriptions of the town, its residents, and their customs. Promising story lines are lost, such as the purpose served by the nearby Fort Rucker, the Army’s aviation center. There is a war going on far away and short of the choppers flying overhead, no one seems to notice.
The few episodes of violence are soft-pedaled. Consequences are neatly delivered for unsavory actions. In case we missed the lessons, they are spelled out clearly by the friendly pastor at the end of the book.
I have to admit that YA fiction rarely holds my interest so my review comes with that caveat. It is recommended for readers of that genre, however.
Reviewed by Carol Malkin
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