Friday, June 26, 2009

Heading Home: Carolina Harmony by Marilyn Taylor McDowell

Carolina reached up and felt the wood carving she wore as a pendant. She rubbed her finger over its wings and its tail, feeling where he daddy had made the cuts and where he'd sanded it smooth.

"It's a present for you, Carolina.
It's a catbird, case you couldn't tell."

She remembered that clear June night, when they were camping up near Grandfather Mountain.

"Lift your hair so I can tie a knot in the cord."

She remembered leaning into the crook of his shoulder and gazing into the night sky with the campfire crackling and blazing before them.

Fans of Anne of Green Gables, that classic tale of a red-headed, pigtailed orphan girl which celebrated its centennial last year, have a new novel of an extraordinary red-haired orphan to enjoy, in Marylyn Taylor McDowell's recent Carolina Harmony (Delacorte, 2009).

When Carolina Campbell's parents and baby brother Caleb are suddenly killed in a car accident, she moves in with her dad's foster mother, "Auntie Shen," (so called after her baby pronunciation of the Gaelic seanmhair for grandmother.) It's 1964, but life in the high mountains of western North Carolina is still primitive for that time. Auntie Shen supports them with cash from her her wild berry jams and jellies and her paintings of mountain plants and animals sold at her Morning Glory Jelly Stand. Although memories and dreams of her lost family haunt Carolina, Auntie Shen's stories of her father's boyhood and frequent "I just love ya, girl!" give her a feeling of continuity and security.

But when Auntie Shen has a stroke and is moved to a nursing home, Carolina learns what being an orphan really means. Taken away from the care of Auntie Shen's Black friend Ruby to "be with people of your own kind," Carolina is sent first to an unkind and autocratic minister's family. When Carolina runs away, she is found and moved to Boone to stay with Miss Lily Jean, a woman motivated mostly by the money she gets for fostering children. Athough befriended by Lily Jean's mischievous nephew, Russell, Carolina is frightened by her trucker husband and once more flees to the woods, finally making her way to Harmony Farm, where she is quietly taken in by Ray and Latah and their son Luke. A wonderful summer passes in which Carolina feels that she has found a family who will keep her and love her for all time.

But when Russell turns up with his Uncle Sims, come to shear the sheep at Harmony Farm, he tries to convince Carolina that Ray and Latah only keep her for her work on the farm. When Sims carelessly sets the barn on fire, Carolina is afraid that she will be blamed and, fearing that she has lost her family all over again, stows away with Russell aboard a freight train heading for Tennessee.

Strong and unique characters, a strong sense of time and place, and plenty of orphan-style adventure make this novel both a sensitive and suspenseful story. Carolina is more than lucky in her many rescuers, from the grandmotherly Ruby to the soft-hearted Knoxville beauty school student Georgia, who sweet-talks her sheriff's deputy boyfriend into giving Carolina a second chance at Harmony Farm. A bit of an old-fashioned tale of a 1960s "Annie," Carolina Harmony is an engaging story of a resourceful orphan who finally comes home to stay.

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