March 2018 – Dandelion Summer by Lisa Wingate
blog by Cindy Bushey
Good advice often falls on deaf ears or is easily ignored. No matter how vigorously our former teachers tried to instill in us to never judge a book by its cover, Zion’s readers fell right into that trap with our March selection, Dandelion Summer by Lisa Wingate. That title evoked the possibility of a schmaltzy romance or a light bit of reading one could skim through without a great deal of thought. The book front showing a young girl skipping rope implied a fluffy story in a laid-back age. Even the synopsis appeared to be an old tried and true formula of an aged man befriended by a young teenager. Yeah, yeah, we all know the story and how it turns out. A couple readers deemed it so unworthy of their time that they did not open the cover. What a mistake! On all our parts!
From the opening page with its mention of Einstein and discussion of physics and philosophy, it became evident that this book was not “chick-lit.” Ms. Wingate spoke with authority in the voice of elderly (elderly in his own eyes at 76 if not in the eyes of our readers, many of whom see 76 in the not too distant future), J. Norman Alvord, an emotionally distant widower with health issues, unable to connect with his equally distant daughter, still suffering guilt at his son’s early death in a fast car Mr. Alvord purchased for him. A man who could only remember the intense thrill of being part of the team at Cape Canaveral to produce, test, fly, and land Surveyor rockets on the moon. He could not imagine attaining that adrenaline rush again and so life had been a downhill journey ever since in comparison. His daughter, Deborah, an equally driven scientist is fighting to get Mr. Alvord into a retirement home rather than his own residence. It is a battle he is determined to win and the only thing that motivates him. When Deborah hires a cleaning lady from her university to clean Mr. Alvord’s home, J. Norman senses invasion tactics and reacts accordingly. When the woman’s daughter arrives to cook a meal for him, rudeness is his weapon of choice. However, rudeness is so far down on the list of experiences Epiphany Jones is enduring that it hardly registers.
Thus, our readers were introduced to a totally different character again voiced very authentically by the author and vastly different from the embittered, hardened old man. Epiphany is a mixed-race teenager bouncing from place to place with her mother like dandelion seeds bounce off obstacles in a breeze. A mother who refuses to share any information about the girl’s father and views her daughter as a burden and delights in telling her so. Only if Epie can bring in some money is she of any worth in her mother’s eyes. Her mother’s current live-in boyfriend, Russ, is an interesting mix of hard motorcycle rider and mechanic who occasionally tries to fulfill the role of step-father. In her current school, Epie is ostracized by both white and black students, harassed and bullied, and physically attacked. She’s not white enough or black enough to fit anywhere. Her intelligence is not appreciated by teachers who merely try to survive among the student gangs. Epie tries to find protection under the wing of a popular athlete, but it backfires when she is not ready to give in to a physical relationship. So, rudeness is almost a welcome change.
“J. Norm” (as Epie calls him) and the 16-year old girl circle each other warily for a while until her intelligence and appreciation of his many books spark an interest in the older man. Since his last health episode, he is dealing with flashbacks that he now thinks are memories, but memories of horror as a small boy and his family are brutalized by a monster father. J. Norm is more and more convinced he was that boy. Perhaps the two recognize a subliminal connection in their searches to fit in somewhere. He enlists Epie’s help with keeping Deborah off his back and out of the loop while they research any clues they can find in his attic’s contents to bolster his belief that he was adopted by the people he knew as parents and that he has siblings still alive. Epie wants to find her father’s family and see if she will be accepted there. Epie is computer-savvy and the proud owner of a driver’s permit; J. Norm has a car and money to purchase a laptop – it’s a perfect match.
Zion’s readers delighted in the repartee between the two characters, including the way J. Norm corrected Epie’s grammar (something we have all done to our children). The two of them, though separated by years, were on a voyage of discovery looking for their true identities. She gave him a purpose; he gave her direction and a filter of experience. As one reader said, wouldn’t it be great to match an older person with a younger one in this country. Each could learn from the other. Agencies that do this (such as Big Brother/Big Sister) should receive more support. While our readers would not encourage teenagers just learning to drive to take to the major highways and drive in huge cities on their first attempts, Epie and J. Norm’s journeys made for gripping reading. Although it is a bit sad that we are now conditioned to view any older gentleman interacting with a female teenager as suspicious. Rest assured that J. Norm made sure all proprieties were observed and that grammar corrections continued! After all, he was a product of a certain type of upbringing. It was refreshing to see those standards employed. We also enjoyed learning about the Surveyor rockets, the precursor to successful moon landings. It is disconcerting to realize those rockets are still sitting on the moon.
The book hit close to home for our readers dealing with aging parents as J. Norm and Deborah butted heads. Sometimes our sympathies lay with Deborah! However, we felt for the old man as he grieved for his wife and son, recognized how he had withheld his emotions and love from his daughter, and struggled to the realization of all the things he should have said and times he should have stopped to enjoy. Another old adage came to mind – remember to stop and smell the flowers. Remember to live in the moment because that moment will never come again. While this sounds sappy, the book was never that. It was simply an awakening to possibilities that had taken too long. When we read his letter to Deborah after his voyage of self-discovery, we wanted to print it and hand it out to anyone we met as well as take it to heart in our own lives.
While graciousness was in short supply for quite a while in this story and evil reared its head, we realized grace was abundant. A grace that gradually permeated Epie’s, J. Norm’s, and Deborah’s souls and allowed them to grow after working through the misunderstandings caused by a spur-of-the-moment road trip and heart attack. A grace that led J. Norm to an understanding of how his early life unknowingly affected his marriage and fatherhood. A grace that inspired a white sheriff in a southern town ruled by a tyrant to conspire with a “colored” maid who rescued five little children from a horrible death and spirited them to other towns and cities to give them a new life. A grace that moved Deborah and J. Norm to create a scholarship in memory of a mother and wife that would impact other lives, starting with Epie. A grace that let Russ protect Epie (even if we found that a little contrived). Not everyone was open to this grace; it bypassed Epie’s mother, a witch of the first order. But, nevertheless, a grace that made Zion’s readers wonder if life is random or if there’s a larger plan. If not, we pondered how free will plays into that, if God places possibilities dancing in front of us like dandelion seeds in a breeze and then watches to see what we do. So, our discussion began with philosophy and circled back to philosophy, all due to a book that one reader called The Help meets A Man Called Ove. This story entertained us, engaged us, roused deep emotions, and prompted discussion about life. Sometimes the best surprises lie under a plain exterior! Eleven readers gave this book one thumb up, one gave it a knuckle, and one was neutral. Many would be open to other books by Ms. Wingate. Next month, Zion’s readers will delve into the health care system in this country when we read No Apparent Distress by Rachel Pearson, M.D.