Unabridged book on 6 compact discs, 7 hrs., 9 min. Read by Kirby Heyborne. Listening Library, 2010.
In Moundville, Alabama, in 1917, twelve-year-old Dit awaits the arrival of the new postmaster with his mother and father and various and sundry siblings and townsfolk. He's hoping that the postmaster has a boy around his age to play with. Everyone is struck dumb when an African American family disembarks from the train. Dit is disappointed because the new postmaster's child is a girl - and a prissy one at that. But with his best friend, Chip, away for the whole summer, and craving company other than his nine siblings, Dit strikes up an unlikely friendship. Wary, and just a bit spiteful at first, Dit comes to appreciate Emma's strength and determination.
Once school starts, and Emma walks several miles the Negro school, Dit reunites with Chip, but begins to reevaluate that friendship when it slowly dawns on him that Chip is a bit of a bully. Dit finds that he prefers to spend time with Emma. He also learns that she is really smart, as she helps him understand long division. She, in turn, demands that he relate every thing that he learned during the day. Dit has to take some guff from Chip and another boy his age. They even lock him up in the jail cell and refuse to let him out until he admits to being sweet on Emma.
This poignant coming-of-age novel is filled with wonderful little moments as well as terrifying reminders of just how brutal life in the Jim Crow south could be. The townsfolk, for the most part, are surprisingly accepting of having a "colored" postmaster. Doc, the barber is also black and his son, Elbert, is one of Dit's best friends. There are other wonderfully realized secondary characters in this slightly episodic story. While it is set during WWI, the only mention of the war comes when a train filled with soldiers heading to the front pass through town. The Spanish Influenza epidemic spreads like wildfire through town, though.
Kirby Heyborne's performance is pitch perfect. His pacing is perfect. His slow drawling accent fits. His voice breaks in appropriate places. He completely and comfortably inhabits Dit. I'm looking forward to looking up and listening to other books narrated by him.
I'm still not sure how this wonderful story slipped beneath my radar. I love stories like this! Fans of Richard Peck's Grandma Dowdel books will enjoy this. It could be paired with The Goodbye Season, and/ or Crossing Stones by Helen Frost, two books in which the Spanish Flu impacts the lives of the characters.