Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Shoe books

No, not the books by Noël Streat­field, but slice-of-life books that I think of as “walk­ing in some­one else’s shoes” books. They’re writ­ten in a con­vinc­ing, ready to assume the loafers or ten­nis shoes or flip-flops man­ner that allows me to become the main char­ac­ter from the front cov­er to the back cov­er … and savor my new under­stand­ing of, or my empa­thy for, some­one else’s life. These are not usu­al­ly his­tor­i­cal books (it is eas­i­er to wear the shoes of a char­ac­ter whose sto­ry takes place dur­ing my life­time), fan­tas­ti­cal, mys­ter­ies, sci­ence fic­tion, comedic, or I’m-making-a-point books. Instead, I can try on the thoughts, expe­ri­ences, and words of anoth­er per­son whose life could have been mine if I had been born to oth­er par­ents. The titles I’m shar­ing today also qual­i­fy as per­fect lying-on-the-blan­ket-under-the-tree sum­mer read­ing.

In Kathryn Fitz­mau­rice’s book, The Year the Swal­lows Came Ear­ly (Harper­Collins), Groovy Robin­son begins her sto­ry by say­ing, “We lived in a per­fect stuc­co house, just off the spark­ly Pacif­ic, with a lime tree in the back­yard and pink and yel­low ros­es gone wild around a pick­et fence. But that wasn’t enough to keep my dad­dy from going to jail the year I turned eleven.” Groovy loves to cook. She keeps note­books filled with recipes and menus. In fact, she has the­o­ries about match­ing foods to emo­tions, an intrigu­ing notion in itself. Obser­vant and thought­ful, Groovy helps out in a restau­rant owned by her best friend Frankie’s step­broth­er, Luis. Of all the char­ac­ters in this book, Luis is on my din­ner invi­ta­tion list—what a gem of a guy he is. Frankie’s moth­er left him, say­ing she was going away for a few weeks to fish, which turned into two years, which has turned Frankie’s heart to stone. The grownups in this book don’t share their rea­sons with the chil­dren, not right away, which is one of the qual­i­fiers for a “shoes” book. That’s real life. The book is set in San Juan Capis­tra­no, so the swal­lows return­ing is an impor­tant ele­ment, woven deft­ly into the sto­ry of peo­ple who have gone away and may or may not return. Life is uncer­tain­ty, but it is also depend­abil­i­ty. Kathryn’s debut nov­el is well-paced, with a mem­o­rable cast of char­ac­ters, and a sto­ry that will leave you reluc­tant to take off this par­tic­u­lar pair of shoes.

Pop­eye acquired his nick­name when he was three years old. There was a boyfriend, a girl­friend, and a Red Ryder BB gun involved. “Pop­eye had been Pop­eye ever since.” His grand­moth­er, Vel­ma, takes care of him and this is a good thing. “Pop­eye need­ed Vel­ma not to crack up because no one else in his fam­i­ly was very good at tak­ing care of him.” Look­ing down at the shoes I’ve put on with The Small Adven­tures of Pop­eye and Elvis, writ­ten by Bar­bara O’Connor (Far­rar, Straus & Giroux), they are cov­ered in red dust. It’s the South, a place I have nev­er lived, the roads of which I’ve walked con­vinc­ing­ly in Barbara’s many books. Pop­eye is bored. “It would always be bor­ing in Fayette, South Car­oli­na. Every day would be the same. Pop­eye was cer­tain about that. But Pop­eye was wrong.” Indeed, a Hol­i­day Ram­bler with a mom and dad and six kids gets stuck in the red mud on the road near Popeye’s house and life will nev­er be the same. Elvis and Pop­eye become fast friends, but there’s Calvin, Pris­sy, Wal­ter, Willis, and Shorty to avoid when the two boys set off for adven­ture. Who is sail­ing mys­te­ri­ous small boats down the creek? Where do the dead dogs live? How can they solve these mys­ter­ies with­out going “too far” into the woods? How will Pop­eye avoid mak­ing Vel­ma “livid”? Read this and enjoy gem-like lines, such as “Calvin! You got your stu­pid head on today?” These shoes fit, even if they’re walk­ing down South­ern roads. And Vel­ma is invit­ed over din­ner.

In The Road to Paris by Nik­ki Grimes (Put­nam), I’m for­tu­nate to wear the shoes of a fos­ter child … with­out hav­ing to be one. Paris has a mom with a messed-up head and a pen­chant for drink­ing too much. She moves the kids around a lot and nev­er stays put for very long. When Paris, age eight, and her broth­er Mal­colm, age ten, are placed in fos­ter care, their expe­ri­ences are bad enough to make them run away. The only fam­i­ly they have left is their grand­moth­er, but she says, “I’ve already raised my kids. I’m too old to start that all over again.” Mal­colm and Paris are sep­a­rat­ed, each one sent to fos­ter homes hours away from each oth­er. Paris goes to live with the Lin­colns, who turn out to be the best kind of fam­i­ly for a girl like her. It takes her awhile to build her trust with this fam­i­ly and poten­tial friends at school. She’s nev­er been at a school for long, so every­thing is new to her. This is a book filled with love and under­stand­ing and hope.

What’s it like to think of your­self as a liar? How do you live inside of that skin? How do you wear those shoes? Beach shoes, in this case. In Julie Schu­mach­ers The Book of One Hun­dred Truths (Dela­corte), Thea is keep­ing a secret. Keep­ing the secret makes her lie, and lie, and lie. She’s twelve years old. Her par­ents have been send­ing her to the New Jer­sey coast to vis­it her rel­a­tives every sum­mer since she was six. This time, her moth­er hands her a farewell gift. “It’s a note­book of truths. You can write any­thing you want in here, as long as every sin­gle thing you write is true.” It turns out her moth­er expects her to write one hun­dred true things in that book. Thea can’t imag­ine how she will do this. She is, after all, a Liar. This will also be chal­leng­ing because her sev­en-year-old cousin, Joce­lyn, is nosy and she wants to know what Thea is writ­ing in this book. Her nosi­ness extends to the secret that Aunt Celia and Aunt Ellen are guard­ing and the girls become con­vinced they must found out what it is. They’re afraid it’s all about putting their grand­par­ents in a nurs­ing home. Nei­ther of the girls can imag­ine life chang­ing in this way. As it turns out, secrets and lies and hurt and love get tan­gled togeth­er until every­one trusts every­one else enough to tell the truth.

In what I thought might be the hard­est fit for a new pair of shoes, Rita Williams-Gar­cia writes about One Crazy Sum­mer (Amis­tad) when Del­phine, Vonet­ta, and Fern trav­el to Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, to stay for the sum­mer with their moth­er, Cecile, who aban­doned them sev­en years ago. Even though Del­phine and her sis­ters live full-time with their father and grand­moth­er, it real­ly both­ers the girls that their moth­er left them behind. This will be the first time they’ve seen her since she left and it turns out Cecile doesn’t want them there. She makes the girls walk to get Chi­nese take­out for their meals, won’t let them in the kitchen even though Del­phine knows how to cook, says noth­ing about the strange peo­ple who slip in and out of her house, and then sends them to a day camp run by the Black Pan­thers. Set in 1968, this is a time I vague­ly remem­ber but it is a life I can­not imag­ine. Fierce­ly in charge at age eleven, Del­phine takes care of her younger sis­ters with adult deter­mi­na­tion. As an only child, I don’t know the weight of this respon­si­bil­i­ty. Del­phine doesn’t agree with the ideas her sum­mer camp Sis­ters are try­ing to get into her head. “We didn’t come here for the rev­o­lu­tion.” She has been raised to think a cer­tain way and it takes her awhile to take the risk, to look at things from her mother’s point of view. Del­phine finds her­self want­i­ng to earn her mother’s respect, to find ways in which they are alike. It’s a book I want to read again, to make sure I didn’t miss any of the good parts.

What are your “shoe” books? Which books can you rec­om­mend to peo­ple who want to try on a dif­fer­ent pair of shoes for awhile?

, , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.