In Zanesville/Jo Ann Beard: Reflections

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Jo Ann Beard won our hearts with her autobiographical essays The Boys of My Youth, and while we've caught glimpses of her from time to time in the many intervening years (The New Yorker, Tin House), we've yearned for something book-length new. Wondered what it was that she had stewing. Waited, because what else can a reader do?

Turns out that Jo Ann Beard has been working on a story told by a precocious fourteen-year-old whose name we're never given. The book is called In Zanesville, and it is rich and stirring, tender and poignant, a rather remarkable brulee of old-time, back-then innocence and utterly sophisticated craft. Our heroine might not sound like most fourteen-year-olds (or, unfortunately, like many syllable-weary adults today), but she certainly lives like fourteen-year-olds once did—before texting, Facebook, and parentally controlled resumes, when kids actually got out and about in their sizable neighborhoods and scrambled their way after mewling cats and toward grown-up truths.

Kids back then had to figure things out for themselves. They had to deal with the alcoholic dad and the chain-smoking mom, the bad dinners, the demanding sister, the cheerleading squad, and the cans of beer at the bonfire. They had to lose their best friends before they could gain them back, and they didn't do it through peer meditation or Facebook flirtations. They did it face to face, phone to phone, or in silence.

You could sum this story up in a single sentence (complemented, perhaps by the sentences above): It's the tale of the narrator and her best friend, Flea. I'm not sure any such summation matters, though, for mostly what Beard gives us here is scenes—big, exploded, funny, both familiar and original, and only ever gently linked. Beard's biggest achievement is placing us inside the head of a young woman she clearly knows well, a young woman who talks and thinks like this:

I hate the phrase late bloomers. It sounds old fashioned and vaguely rank, like something a prairie woman would wear under her sweaty calico dress.
I like the way the clarinet sounds, like a clear cellophane ribbon unfurling, better than the flute, which has a narrow, harrassed sound.
Tonight the Zanesville Zephyrs are playing the Central Valley Voles, who always win, insulting everyone in Zanesville's idea of proper conduct for a school that is both poor and rural. They have rawboned, implacable players who trudge out on the field like coal miners going to work, and solid, unlovely cheerleaders who wear pants.

What is young adult literature? What is adult literature? I was never convinced, entirely, that the divisions matter.


Anna Lefler said...

Another for my ever-growing stack!

And I know what you mean about the divisions between YA and adult. A very gray area much of the time...

:-) A.

Richard Gilbert said...

I love The Boys of My Youth and so am tempted to read this novel--though I hardly think I am its demographic! Nice review

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