Be My Valentine Week
Destination: Ohio and an American Road Trip
This book picked me up in a red convertible with the top down and set me down right back in Ohio in the 1950’s. I saw a place where the town diner served the Blue Plate Special of chipped beef on toast (and the cook called it ‘shit on a shingle’); where girls ‘going steady’ wore their boy friend’s class ring on a chain dangling over their sweater set and you could send in cereal boxes to win one square inch of Alaska.
Some people thought Alaska would never be a state. Everybody took sides on whether Senator Joe McCarthy was keeping us safe from communists or ruining the lives of intellectuals and artists. Homosexuals were deeply closeted and blacks were ignored.
My One Square Inch of Alaska touches on all these topics and more. Sharon Short packs her novel about a teenage girl, Donna, and the little brother she cares for with appropriate details to set the stage for this coming-of-age novel. We cheer on the young woman as she tries to understand why people do the things they do–why she makes the choices she does.
Everyone has a dream, but only some pursue those dreams. Donna’s brother Will, a fan of a radio-turned-TV adventure show that takes place in Alaska, works hard to achieve his dream. All he has to do is eat ten boxes of Marvel Puffs cereal. Then the company will send him a deed to his own one square inch of Alaska.
Will befriends a mangy dog he names Trusty after the dog in the radio/TV series and pledges to return him to his home in Alaska (although the dog has never been to Alaska, he is a husky). Will and Donna also makes friends with a woman named MayJune who lives in the poor part of town. Trusty and MayJune are two examples of the interesting and distinctive characters who people the story. And yes, the dog deserves his place on the list of characters.
Donna and Will’s alcoholic father, the paper mill owner and his wife and their son, the boyfriend. Donna’s best girlfriend, the school art teacher, the next door neighbor lady, and bitter Grandma who runs a diner. Many more people flit through Donna’s life, and like the list above, could easily sink into caricature instead of character. Short doesn’t let that happen as she makes each person (and the dog) distinctive so the reader never wonders, “who was that again?”.
All but one of these folks are decent enough. We see their flaws through Donna’s eyes and see her puzzle out how they wound up the way they are.
I don’t want to give away the second half of the story, but I will say it takes a very different turn from what you might be expecting and it involves a road trip.
The plot moves from a focus on a small-town teenage romance to a compelling, self-sacrificing family love. The location and the pace change radically as well as things get quite exciting and even hair raising. But some of the questions Donna has wondered about are answered, and she learns to live with ambiguity about those that don’t have answers. The author has written a string of domestic murder mysteries, and her skill at the fundamentals of pacing and dialogue and character are much in evidence here.
In one particularly poetic passage, talking about her memories of the road trip, Donna says, “…I also see us looking up, as if someone has gently tucked a loving hand under our chins and tilted our faces, so we can watch the sky fill with the northern lights, a grand celestial dance of great swaths of tangerine and azure and teal, veils between our momentarily earthbound selves and all that is possible and infinite…”
With the myriad of details, Short probably missed a couple. I was briefly put off by people driving through Logan Pass on the Going to the Sun Highway in Glacier National Park in October. Doubtful. I would have liked to hear more teenage slang, because teens rarely speak in their native language–or rather, their native language becomes teen speak. And structurally, I’m not sure the epilogue, tying everything up into a neat package, was totally necessary.
But those are minor complaints. It was truly hard to say goodbye to Donna and her family and the cast of characters (in all senses of the word) in My One Square Inch of Alaska. This book is a beautiful piece of Americana, thought provoking, and a worthwhile read. Well done, Sharon Short. (You can follow her at FaceBook on this link)
Readers of A Traveler’s Library will no doubt enjoy both the time trip and the road trip across the United States.
Would you like some motivation to save your cereal box tops and go to Alaska? Try this YouTube video.
I remember sending off for a secret decoder ring because I was sure I would be “the first kid on my block to have one.” When you were a kid, did you ever send in cereal box tops to win a prize?
Note: Penguin Plume provided a digital version of the book that I read on a Kindle app, but it is also available in print. My opinions remain my own–not influenced by gifts of review copies. The links here to Amazon allow you to shop at Amazon and at the same time give a vote of confidence to A Traveler’s Library. We are an Amazon affiliate, so we make a couple cents from each of your purchase, even though it costs you no more. THANKS!
The Ohio photo is my own but the other two are from Flickr.com, used with a Creative Commons license. Click on each photo to learn more about the photographer.