Monday, August 8, 2011

In Zanesville, by Jo Ann Beard

"We can't believe the house is on fire. It's so embarrassing first of all, and so dangerous second of all. Also, we're supposed to be in charge here, so there's a sense of somebody not doing their job."

This opening paragraph of In Zanesville sets the town for this very funny coming-of-age story set in small-town Illinois (as an Illinois native, I'm thinking Zanesville is modeled on Moline). The narrator is a 14-year-old girl with a family that has serious problems (they're broke, the father is a drunk who disappears regularly) and a best friend named Felicia. It's the summer before ninth-grade, and the girls are babysitting a passel of kids to earn money to buy new clothes for fall. It is the home of their clients that is on fire--although the damage to the house is minimal, the boy who started the fire is severely punished by his father, hinting that the book is not just going to be a comic story.

As the two girls start the school year, they become interested in boys, which leads to some amusing episodes. Trouble comes, however, when they suddenly take a step up socially, being invited to a slumber party at a cheerleader's house. Ten boys show up to hang out with the 11 girls, and when Felicia goes off with a hunk, our heroine feels abandoned. While the description of her experience at the slumber party is funny, it's also poignant, reminding you of how serious everything feels in those early teen years. Following the party, matters get worse when, for some inexplicable reason, the cheerleaders want to hang out with the narrator (her name is never actually stated, although there are hints that made me think it's Jo Ann) but not Felicia. Without their friendship to sustain them, school is painful and the social scene seems surreal (Jo Ann has been hanging out in the artroom, picking up new vocabulary and avoiding the awkwardness of not having a crowd to sit with in the cafeteria).

While the book's undercurrent of sadness makes you think that it's going to have a very serious outcome, in fact the ending is lighthearted. Still, In Zanesville has made me start worrying about my granddaughter's teen years (and she's only 4).

Favorite passage:
I wish my mother wouldn't mention bras in front of my father; I don't know how much he knows or doesn't know about certain matters. My mother's own bras are large quilted things that I used to think were funny. Now when I see them on the laundry table, one cup folded into the other, I have a sense of impending doom. It's like being on your way to the Alps and knowing that when you get there you'll have to wear lederhosen.

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