Where the Heart Is: A Rambler Steals Home by Carter Higgins
"Aren't we lucky?" Garland asked. "Just traveling souls, making traditions and cheeseburgers." I didn't really know if I believed that part, but I sure could believe in the summer's traditions.
Garland always said being a rambler of the road meant food, family, and fun. Triple and I always said it meant three other things--blisters, grease splatters, and loneliness. But there we were, rambling back to Ridge Creek for another summer.
Eleven-year-old Derby's dad, Garland, has a bad case of wander-foot. For most of the year they take their Rambler, towing a grill, from autumn fairs and pumpkin festivals to Christmas tree lots, and on through the spring carnivals, but summer always brings them right back to Ridge Creek, Virginia, parking in the grass between the Heritage Inn and the Ridge Creek Rockskippers baseball stadium. Garland is happiest on the road. He cheerfully homeschools Derby and little brother Triple and mans the grill, selling hamburgers with fried onions and the newest big thing, sweet potato fries. But since her mother left, years ago, Derby has longed for a real home, not one on wheels, and for her the old, faded Rockskippers Stadium is like home, where everything and everyone is the same, especially June Mattingly, her summertime mother.
Right away, she spots the sign taped to the fence.
Welcome back, Sugar Sue.
Only one person called me that.
The Rockskippers Stadium is still wonderful, a bit more shabby, its paint a bit more faded, but what is different this year is June. Instead of inviting her to sit on her porch for lemonade and raisin cookies, her sign tells Derby to meet her in the ticket booth, where June works all summer. June is warm and welcoming, but to Derby something seems different.
The old baseball park is just about the same, and the secret space between the fence planks where Derby and her friend Marcus squeeze through is still there. The creek is there, cool and full of turtles for Triple to catch, and Betsy and Lolly, the town mean girls, are still there, looking down their noses at Derby. Candy Plogger is still plotting to win the best dessert contest with her apple pies. But between smiles, June seems sad, and her once neat flower-filled front yard has been taken over by weeds. Even her front door is faded and peeling its paint.
Derby soon learns that June's husband Franklin, has died. Derby's friend, Marcus has taken over the grounds-keeping job, suddenly seeming more serious and grown-up, and he, too, sees that the life seems to have gone out of June, and she is just not the same. And so, for Derby, Ridge Creek is not the same.
Franklin Mattingly had broad shoulders, massive hands, and an even bigger heart. Players came and went, and the teenagers who sold peanuts left for college. But Franklin was always there. The first to show up and the last to go.
But Derby needs June, and soon decides that June needs her. Together she and Marcus make a plan to get rid of the weeds in June's yard and plant flowers and paint and decorate her door in a perfect pink, hoping that some fixing up will help with June's grief. Little by little, others join in the effort, even Betsy and Lolly, who work out big letters, spelling out something secret, and a tricky wave motion from the crowd in the stadium for what turns out to be a big town salute to June.
WE LOVE YOU JUNE
The James Edward Allen Gibbs Stadium was on its feet, cheering from the bullpens to the nosebleeds. When June saw me waiting at home plate, it felt like looking into a mirror. We had the same broken heart, sewn up, and weaved back together.
Derby comes home, in Carter Higgins' A Rambler Steals Home (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017). With a main character whose reality is far from the lifestyle of most middle readers, this debut novel has a lot to say about the universal need for a place in the heart, a place to belong. Derby Christmas Clark is different sort of character, but one which readers will recognize in themselves, and the world of Ridge Creek is a rich background for this story about love and community and the need of the human heart to call some place home.