Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Wingshooters by Nina Revoyr (Akashic Books, $15.95) is one of The Bookstore's Staff Picks for February, but somehow a little blue Staff Pick card doesn't do it justice. This is an intense, powerful book that you just have to read for yourself.
It starts out as a quiet book, set in a small town in Central Wisconsin in the mid-1970's. Customers who know me will know why I was immediately drawn to this book: that's where and when I grew up.
It's the kind of place where blue-collar men gather to drink beer in their garage and talk about their guns, their duck hunting and the upcoming deer season. It was back when men could have an agreeable chat about those "dang draft dodgers and city slickers" at the local barbershop. The kind of time and place where children could grow up without meeting a person of another race unless they left for a bigger city like Madison, Milwaukee or Chicago. When prejudice was a way of life so deeply ingrained that no one thought to cringe at racial epithets.
It was also the kind of a time and place where mothers still made homemade pies, grown men played on baseball leagues, and every kid had a loyal hunting dog as a sidekick. Where a kid could hop on a bike and ride safely for miles past cow pastures and cornfields and silos. A place and time of close family connections that -- admit it -- we wish we still had.
It is into this rich, complicated mix of love and prejudice that Nina Revoyr sets her book. The story features a young girl who has been left to be raised by her grandparents in the fictional town of Deerhorn, Wisconsin. Her dad grew up in Deerhorn, but went off to school in Madison (Wisconsin code for "got newfangled ideas") and married a Japanese woman. Years later, the dad drops off his daughter so he can head off to California in hopes of reconciling with his wife.
The girl narrates the story as a grown woman with a wise but painful perspective:
"So I stayed with my American grandparents whom I had met only once before, in the town they'd both lived in or near for all of their lives. . . . While people in other parts of the country were growing their hair long and smoking pot and wearing polka dot ties and bell-bottoms, the people of Deerhorn dressed in overalls and drank cheap Wisconsin beer. And while there were stories on the nightly news about antiwar protests, women's rights, the school busing crisis in Boston, and Watergate, these events seemed so distant and strange that they might have been taking place in a different country."
The narrator recalls, in a brave clear voice: "Let me make this very clear - my grandfather was a bigot. He wasn't shy about using racial epithets, or blaming blacks or Jews or Democrats for all the country's problems. But it enraged him that the town did not embrace me."
At the same time the town is reacting to this young girl's arrival, a black couple from Chicago moves to town for jobs at the local medical clinic. The town's racial anxieties are stoked by some truly hateful characters, and the young biracial girl and her grandfather are caught right in the middle. The tension builds and the suspense is keep-you-awake-at-night frightening. Make no mistake, this is a tragic, violent and stunning story. A story you need to read.
Looking back, it makes me sad to think that I have known this way of life, that we have known this way of life. I'm sad to learn that Revoyr actually lived in a place like Deerhorn for two years as a child. However, as Revoyr captures so beautifully, the air we breathed back then wasn't all hateful, and in fact most of it was just the opposite. My town wasn't nearly that small and backward, but still, I have stories. And I'm pretty sure you have stories too, even if you didn't grow up there and then.
So what do you do with that history, those stories, that complicated mix of love and anger and ignorance? Is it enough to say that you move forward and teach your own children differently, or must we do more? Fortunately for her readers, Revoyr took her own stories, and with her remarkable imagination and talent, produced this novel.
Wingshooters would make for an incredibly interesting book club night. I highly recommend it.