Friday, November 07, 2014

Looking for Home: The Perfect Place by Teresa E. Harris

Dad started for the door.

"You act like we're a burden to some other life you want to live," Mom said to his back.

Dad turned. His eyes and shoulders seemed to droop as he stared at the three of us. As if we truly were too heavy for him to bear.

"I'm just trying to find the perfect place for us." he said. "The perfect place."

I believed him.

As Mom's Aunt Grace had warned her, Dad is a rolling stone, always chasing the perfect place. He moves them often, but never to a perfect place, and she's learned not to make friends that she'll just have to leave over and over.

Now Dad's gone again, without a word, and Mom's only clue is a credit card receipt from some little town down in North Carolina. Leaving at night, Mom loads them up, with only their clothes and little sister Tiffany's Mr. Teddy Daniels in pillowcases, and heads south with five dollars and three-quarters of a tank of gas.

Her first stop is down a gravelly road in Virginia, where Treasure and Tiffany meet their Great-Aunt Grace and learn that their mom is going on to search for their dad alone, leaving them behind with her aunt.

"Here we are," Mom says. We're face to face with a green and white house that looks like the victim of a serious beat down, with grubby aluminum siding and a porch screen with more holes than screen.

"Let's get this over with," Mom says. The heat hits every square inch of my body. It's humid in Jersey, but this--this is like being inside someone's mouth. "Listen to me and listen good. Great-Aunt Grace does not tolerate nonsense, so you need to be on your best behavior and more grateful than you've ever been."

Great-Aunt Grace is tall and broad-shouldered, with big thick-fingered hands and feet like stretch limos. She does not smile.

"Have you lost your mind, Lisa? What about these kids?"

Great-Aunt Grace didn't invent the term, but she's a believer in tough love, as Treasure and Tiffany soon learn. She may have been arrested for confiscating a teenager's too-loud radio one time, but there's no doubt that she's a person to be reckoned with in Black Lake, Virginia. She assigns chores, gets them up at dawn to a breakfast of dry eggs and burnt bacon, hikes them three miles to town, and puts them to work in her candy store, Grace's Goodies. She dresses them up in the best clothes they've got and hauls them off to church on Sunday, where over their protests she signs them up for Camp Jesus Saves Summer Bible School. Giving Great-Aunt Grace some sass about Bible School gets Treasure nowhere. She gets it that Black Lake is a long way from New Jersey.

Treasure is used to being a loner, but when the rich and mean Jaguar and her sidekick Pamela trash Grace's store and start picking on Tiffany, she and Jaguar get into trash can-spilling fight at Camp Jesus Saves. And in a first glimmer of empathy, Great-Aunt Grace gets to the truth and heads off to give Jaguar's father, Reverend Burroughs, a piece of her mind. Jaguar backs off with the bullying, and Treasure accepts the erudite professor's son Terrence, who admires her vocabulary and figures they're kindred spirits, as her "associate," not quite friend and certainly not her boyfriend. And spying on Aunt Grace late at night, she discovers that her aunt is knitting new clothes for Mr. Teddy Daniels to replace the ones Mom left behind. Treasure hangs tough and puts all her hopes into the rock-skipping wishes that Terrence teaches her at the lake.

But when Treasure screws up her courage to call their landlord back in New Jersey, she learns that a letter from her father has come in the mail. And there's a return address on the envelope. Inside is a note:

I'm sorry. I love you all.

Treasure secretly calls her mom with the address, but when they arrive, they find an empty rusty trailer and Dad is long gone.

"Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in," said Robert Frost, and as the three turn around and head north, Treasure realizes that the perfect place is where someone loves you enough to give you a home, and she knows where that place is.

In a notable debut, Teresa E. Harris' forthcoming The Perfect Place (Clarion Books, 2014) offers a realistic novel starring a spirited main character and a cast of all-too-real characters, true-to-life situations, a couple of sidebar mysteries to solve, plenty of down home humor and homespun wisdom, and above all, what Beverly Cleary's Ramona called "a good, sticking-together family." Each character is lovingly fleshed out in full humanity, and there is a setting that you can feel and taste and a crackling plot that doesn't flag. This story's closest literary relatives are Richard Peck's depression-era Newbery-winning A Long Way From Chicago and sequel A Year Down Yonder, pretty illustrious company.

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