Friday, March 16, 2007

Looking Back: Penny from Heaven

Jennifer Holm's Newbery Honor book Penny from Heaven finds more sunshine than showers as she recreates the summer of her mother's twelfth birthday in 1953. Although surrounded by affection from the large, warm Italian-American family on her father's side, and the more reticent but loving care of her mother and grandparents, Penny senses that there is some painful secret buried in the division between them, a secret which is tied to her father's early death.

In the summer of 1953, all Penny wants to do is swim at the pool, listen to the Brooklyn Dodgers' games, and eat plenty of butter pecan ice cream. But polio threatens at the pool, her widowed mother is actually enjoying being courted (to Penny's intense embarrassment) by the milkman, her cousin Frankie is arrested, Penny is hurt in a life-changing accident, and her favorite uncle, Dominic, is no longer around to be her surrogate dad.

In the hospital where her mother trained as a nurse, Penny hears bits and pieces of her father's story and forces a confrontation with both sides of her family to gain an explanation. Out of the airing of the long-repressed story of how he died, Penny understands her family's pain and even comes to acceptance of Murphy the milkman as a step dad. As the song goes,

If you want the things you love,
You must have showers.

Penny from Heaven is a wonderful story of family love in the immediate postwar years, a time when the scars from World War II are still painful, especially in an Italian-American family which remembers being stigmatized as enemy aliens. Penny's family has to make their own separate peace before those scars can heal, and as her father's daughter, Penny has to be the one to begin the process.

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