By Joyce Hostetter
Calkins Creek (October 4, 2016)
Reviewed by Carol Baldwin
When critically acclaimed children’s book author Joyce Hostetter’s editor suggested she write a novel based in her own backyard, Hostetter spun a tale of the polio epidemic in Hickory, NC and called it Blue (2006). The main character had more to tell and Hostetter’s 2009 novel Comfort continues the story of Anne Fay dealing with the effects of polio, as well as her father’s return from WWII. Both novels were widely praised and won awards, but Hostetter knew there was more to these stories. A prequel to these two novels, Aim imagines the world before Blue with the story of Junior Bledsoe.
“Hand me that wrench,” Pop wiggled his grease-covered fingers.
I gave it to him, but I wanted real bad to get my hands on his repair job. “I could do this if I had me half a chance,” I said. (p. 7)
In less than 50 words Joyce Hostetter brings the reader into the world of Aim‘s Junior Bledsoe: a world full of unmet desires and tension. In this powerful first chapter, many of Junior’s conflicts are foreshadowed. At fourteen, he longs to show his father what he is capable of doing, (“Sometimes I wondered if I’d ever get to show him what I could do.”); feels the sting of not being as close to him as Ann Fay is with her father who “go together like biscuits and gravy”; reads in the paper about America preparing to go to war; and hears his father poke fun of him for wanting to stay in school: “After the first day, quit. Least you can say you went to high school.”
His father’s last words as he drives off in the car come back to haunt Junior later:
“Find yourself a job and take care of your momma.” He climbed in the car. “I’ll be back before you can say, ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy.'” Then he drove off and left me to put the tools away.
“Yankee Doodle Dandy,” I said. And he wasn’t even out of the driveway yet. (p. 14)
Junior’s father never returns.
For Junior Bledsoe, choices assault him on a variety of levels. How he will respond to sharing his bedroom with his cantankerous grandfather? What will he do when faced with the temptation to skip school or steal a car? What will he have to give up to earn self-respect? Can he be different than the generations of men who’ve gone before him?
In this beautiful coming of age story, there is one scene that I will never forget. In a moment of introspection, Junior crosses a mini-threshold. He has just tried working at the cotton mill and found it much harder than he’d imagined. He comes home and pulls off his shoes and socks because he wants to feel dirt on the bottom of his feet.
Eleanor was already bawling and I knew there was gardening to do. There wouldn’t be time for going into the woods. I tended the animals, and on the way back to the house I plopped myself down onto a sweet potato crate under Pop’s oak tree. I hadn’t managed to rake up the acorns last fall, and one of them had sprouted into a small tree not four feet away.
It was only six inches high, but it had four perfect leaves and was doing its best to become a real tree. Any other time I would’ve pulled up a sprout like that. Today, though, I didn’t have the heart to destroy it. After all, what if the big oak tree was hit by lightening one day? The seedling would be there to replace it. (p. 239)
Even now, I get teary-eyed over that marvelous piece of introspection and characterization.
For fans of Blue and Comfort, you will be amazed at how Aim‘s ending is a perfect set-up for Blue. On the page it appears effortless. But here’s a secret: Joyce wrote that chapter first. It gave her a powerful starting point in her mind. From there she created the wonderful story of a boy named Junior Bledsoe, who spends the year after his father’s death learning what to aim for.
CAROL BALDWIN is a contributing author to LitChat. Read her complete bio here.