Saturday, January 21, 2012

Wingshooters, by Nina Revoyr

Michelle LeBeau was born and spent her first eight years in Japan. Then her Japanese mother left her and her American father and they eventually follow her to the United States. Heading off in search of his wife, Michelle's father leaves her with his parents in small-town Deerhorn, Wisconsin, where she is even less accepted than she was in Japan. Despite being aware that her grandfather Charlie shares some of the bigotry of the community, she adores him and loves nothing better than the activities she does with him, whether going to the coffee shop, playing baseball, hunting, or walking in the woods.

Michelle, or Mike as Charlie calls her, struggles to find her place in the insular community of Deerhorn, where children feel free to, at worst, physically attack her and, at best, ignore her. When a black couple (a schoolteacher and nurse) move to Deerhorn, the racist attitudes of many of the townspeople are further revealed. Entangled with the town's reaction to this couple is the revelation that one of Charlie's friends is abusing his son. As Michelle struggles to understand what is happening to the town and her grandfather, the town spirals toward violence.

Nina Revoyr's book has received accolades from Independent Booksellers, among others, but I had issues. The book feels like it is set in the 1950s rather than 1974. As a white Midwestern farm girl (born and raised in northern Illinois) who married an African American man in 1973, I know there was and is racism in small-town America (as in urban America). But for me the events depicted are too extreme for the time and place in which the author has placed them. (And I recognize that my tendency to defend the Midwest from the literati may be based on misapprehensions of my own.)

A second problem has to do with the narrative voice. It's difficult for an adult to write in the voice of a child. Writing about childhood as recollected by an adult narrator (as Revoyr does) might seem easier--after all, it certainly expands the vocabulary available and allows for insight gained through adult reflection. Yet there are also challenges, chief among them maintaining the authenticity of the child's experience. Revoyr does this best when she's describing Michelle's school experiences or her adventures in the countryside around Deerhorn. She's less successful in other instances. For example, when Michelle describes the child abuser's wife, she says, "She was still a pretty woman, or you could see that she had been, but the years of worry and silence had worn her away, like a house grayed by the buffeting winds." Really? That's what a third-grader thought? Hmmm.

And, on a minor note, I don't understand the title of the book. Wingshooters refers to bird hunters. We learn at some point in the book that Charlie had given up hunting for birds, so I'm sure the title has some symbolic meaning. But I don't get it!

Favorite passage: None

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