Monday, June 15, 2009

Both Sides Now: Faith, Hope, and Ivy June by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

"Ivy June," Mamaw says, "this may be your one chance to see what the rest of the world is like." (Not taking Africa and China into account, of course.) But if Lexington's all I'm going to get, I figure I'll take it."

There are less than 100 miles between Ivy June Mosley's grandparents' house in Thunder Creek, Kentucky, and Catherine Combs' family home in a Lexington suburb, but it's almost as if the two girls have grown up in separate countries. But when Ivy June is selected to participate in a student exchange between her school and an upscale private girls' school up in the bluegrass country, she figures she'll do her best to be her grade's ambassador in the land of Lexington.

No children's writer puts the reader into the head of her characters any faster or better than Newbery Award winner Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, and inside their heads is the place where most of her just-published novel, Faith, Hope, and Ivy June, (Delacorte, 2009) finds its story. Ivy June travels out of the hollows of the Cumberland Mountains of southeast Kentucky and up I-75 to Lexington, taking more than just her batterd yellow suitcase with her. As she draws near her destination, Ivy June carries a load of anxiety over the discrepancy between the way her family lives and what she sees as the ways of the rest of the country. Ivy June's parents are hard-scrabble folks, with too little education and too many kids squeezed into their tiny house, so she willingly agreed to move into her Mamaw and Papaw's house just up the mountain. Even there, there's no bathroom, no telephone, and no cell phone service, but her grandparents have ample love and hope for better times for Ivy June.

In Lexington, Ivy June climbs into the short plaid-skirted uniform of Buckner Academy and sets off to school with Catherine, with worries about being taken for a hillbilly and embarrassing herself academically at the exclusive school. But despite some initial trepidation, her quick wit helps to break the ice with her wealthy classmates. Trips to the horse park to ride and to the opera house to see the musical Oklahoma! thrill Ivy June, and except for a quarrel with Catherine over mentioning phone calls from Catherine's "boyfriend" at a sleepover, the two weeks in Lexington go quickly. Glad to be on her way back home, Ivy June does admit in her journal that she could get used to her own indoor toilet and shower, hot water on demand, and short rides to school in Mr. Combs' comfortable car.

But when it's time for Catherine to come to visit with her, Ivy June is anxious about how her guest will see her living conditions and her family. Will she just see the stereotypes--tiny, crowded houses, outdoor privies, and missing teeth--or will she see her coal miner grandfather and worn-out mother for the hardworking, courageous people that she now knows them to be?

And after Catherine adjusts to doing without daily shampoos and taking a Saturday night bath in a tin tub, she begins to fit in. The girls explore the mountains, just beginning to bloom into early spring, meet other seventh-grade boys and girls to dance and flirt in the parking lot at Earl's Store on Saturday night, and gradually deepen the growing bond between them.

But it is when Catherine learns that her mother has been taken to Cleveland for emergency heart surgery that she feels most alone and isolated in Thunder Creek. Still, the Mosleys do all they can to comfort her, and when Ivy June's grandfather is caught in a sudden flood inside the mine and feared dead, Catherine comes to understand how much alike the girls' families are in their love for each other.

And Catherine confides to her journal that indeed Ivy June's life has some advantages:

"One of the differences between my family and Ivy June's is that in hers, every last child is expected to help out in some way.

Peter and Claire and I...we're loved, I know...but I don't have the feeling we're really needed.

Here in Thunder Creek, it's like a big family. Like everyone is related. The same mountains that separate these people from the rest of the world seem to keep them close to each other, and for that, I wonder if Ivy June knows just how lucky she is."

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