Monday, September 01, 2008

Red Peril in Minnesota: Rising Star of Rusty Nail by Leslie M. M. Blume

Time dragged in Rusty Nail and nothing ever seemed to happen. Even the flies in the air seemed to stand still, as though suspended inside honey-colored amber.

Franny Hansen sometimes feels the weight of the sameness of life in her small Minnesota town, slowly dying even in the bustling years of the early 1950's. Still, Franny and her best friend Sandy make the best of it, as they, as the defenders of democracy against the Communist hordes, are doing one late summer afternoon as they hurl their water balloons from the roof right down on prissy Nancy Orilee, Franny's chief rival for premier pianist of Rusty Nail. Franny and Sandy are grounded for their misdemeanors, but that doesn't stop them from spying on Rusty Nail's most eligible bachelor and his new Russian wife. Sandy is sure that she's a Commie spy, but when Franny spots movers unloading the first grand piano she's ever seen, she realizes that Madame Malenkov must be a great concert pianist and that she has to convince her to become her new piano teacher.

Franny succeeds by trading five afternoons of housework and errands for the chance to have a real teacher. Madame Malenkov is secretive, critical, and difficult, but when Franny finally gets an opportunity to play for her, she senses something special in the ten-year-old pianist and agrees to make her an official student. As Franny learns Madame Malenkov's own personal history of losing her parents and fleeing Stalinist persecution, she realizes that she's no Communist spy. The other ladies of Rusty Nail are sure that their new resident is a danger to the community and imitating Senator Joseph McCarthy, form their own Un-American Activities Committee, the W.O.R.N.A.T.C.T. (Women of Rusty Nail Against The Communist Threat). Yet for Franny Hansen, the mysterious, imperious Russian is her only chance to find her own place as a pianist in the world beyond Rusty Nail.

Against the backdrop of the time capsule town of Rusty Nail, Leslie Blume's The Rising Star of Rusty Nail is a hilarious story of a girl whose passion for music and dislike for "Prancy Nancy" Orilee takes her to the Minnesota Youth Piano Contest and on to a world she has not yet even imagined. Franny is an unforgettable character, as peppery as a pack of RedHots and so much herself that even a one-stoplight town like Rusty Nail can for her be the first stepping stone to the bright lights of New York.

Blume's other notable novels for middle readers are Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters and Tennyson.

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