The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt, by Andrea Bobotis*****

“We will choose what we take with us.”

This thunderous debut by Andrea Bobotis bears a small resemblance to the work of Elizabeth Strout and the late Harper Lee. Issues of race and menacing family secrets simmer beneath the surface of this narrative like some otherworldly being biding its time in the swamp, till at last it rises and we must look at it.

As the story commences, Judith, who is quite elderly, is ready to take inventory. Her family home, all six thousand square feet of it, is jammed full of heirlooms, and each is fraught with history. The year is 1989, but as Judith examines one heirloom and then another, she takes us back to the period just before the stock market crashes, back when she was young and her parents and brother were still alive.

I have to confess that the first time I picked up this story—free to me, thanks to Net Galley and Sourcebooks Landmark—I thought, Huh. A boring old lady and her stuff. Pub date’s a ways off, so let’s put this one on the bottom of the pile. Of course, I picked it up again later. I read a bit farther this time and found I was acutely uncomfortable; I told myself I had to read it because I had requested the galley, but then I didn’t for awhile.

But like Judith, I pride myself on being reliable, so toward the end of June I squared my shoulders and opened the book. An hour later my jaw was on the floor and my husband was avoiding me, because he knew if he got too close I would start reading out loud. If you were to show up right now I’d do the same to you. I genuinely believe this novel and the characters and social issues they’re steeped in is one for our time.

Judith is the eldest of the Kratt children; her companion, Olva, lives with her, but her status is undetermined and remains that way far into the book. Part of the time she appears to be a live-in servant, hopping up whenever Judith wants a cup of tea or a blanket; at other times the two of them sit on the porch together and watch the world go by as if they were sisters or good friends. We know that they grew up together and share a history as well as the trauma of growing up with the vicious, unpredictable Daddy Kratt, the wealthiest man in Bound at the time.

As layer after layer is peeled back, using the household treasures that are inventoried as a framework of sorts, we see the gratuitous cruelty that was part of both women’s daily existence as children. Kratt can be generous at times, and yet at others—with increasing frequency—he is vicious and sadistic. We see the responses his unpredictable fury brings out of Judith as a child, her younger brother Quincy, who’s a chip off the old block, and their younger sister, Rosemarie. Kratt can ruin someone’s entire life purely on whim and never feel the slightest regret. He likes to watch. The entire town fears him.

Now he’s gone, and here we are. Judith acknowledges that her social skills are stunted, and she never knows what to say or do to smooth a difficult situation. She was never a pretty girl, and she has never married.  We can also see that she is solipsistic, insensitive to the feelings of others, and at times just straight-up mean, but she doesn’t see herself that way, because she measures herself against her late parents.  Judith is nowhere near as nasty as her daddy was; she has never permitted herself to be broken by him, as her mother was.  So Judith tends to let herself off the hook lightly. As she remembers back over the years the cataclysmic events that have taken place around her—or in some cases, because of her—her overall tone is self-congratulatory.

But her little sister, who is also an old lady now, returns to the family manse, and that overturns the apple cart in a big way.  How dare Rosemarie run out and leave Judith to contend with that awful man but now come back to claim her birthright?  Isn’t that right, Olva?

Olva just smiles.

In fact, this story is every bit as much about Olva as it is about Judith. . Every single one of these women is sitting on secrets; every one of them has a different story to tell. Every new revelation brings additional questions to mind, so that although this is not a mystery or a thriller, I cannot stand to put it down. I generally like to flop on my bed at night and read before I go to sleep, but I can’t do that with this book. I’d climb under the covers; open the book; read a little ways and then sit bolt upright. Eventually I realized that this cannot be the bedtime story. (It occurs to me just now that retelling one or another portion of this story in the voice of one of the characters not heard from would make a great creative writing assignment related to point of view.)

What Bobotis has done here is masterful. She begins with an old, wealthy white woman and yet develops her, and I cannot think of even a dozen books where that has been accomplished in a believable way in literature; once we get old, that’s pretty much who we are going to be. But the elderly Judith at the story’s end is a better person than the elderly Judith at the outset. And as if that weren’t enough, she also develops Olva, the dark-skinned elderly companion that seems to us, at the beginning, to be a live-in servant or nurse of some sort. But however circumspect Olva has been—a prerequisite for an African-American that wants to stay alive in the American South in the past and at times, maybe the present—Olva does in fact have some things to say. It is Rosemarie’s return that makes this possible.

This isn’t necessarily a fun novel to read, and yet the skill with which it is rendered is a beautiful thing in and of itself. I believed every one of these characters, those within this pathologically corrupt family and those around it. I suspect that the formidably talented Bobotis could pluck any one of these characters and create a sequel just as remarkable. This writer is going to be around for a long, long time, and as for me? I’m ready to read whatever she comes up with next.

Highly recommended.

The Education of Dixie Dupree, by Donna Everhart*****

theeducationofdixieduI rate this 4.5 stars and round it upward. Thanks go to Kensington Publishing and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review. This courageous novel, one that takes place in the past but couldn’t be more timely, is going to create a lot of buzz. Get your marshmallows ready, because I think I smell hot tar and burning wood…or is it paper?

A note: there’s no way to review this without providing at least the basic elements of the story. If you want to avoid spoilers entirely, read the book, then come back and check my viewpoint against your own.

Although it’s billed as being a story about mothers and daughters, and about secrets that pass from one generation to the next, that wasn’t my take away from this one, I have to say. From where I sit, the story is about domestic abuse, and about domestic abuse, and about domestic abuse. I haven’t seen a solid YA novel take this on in such a straight forward manner, and I think there are a lot of children, girls in particular, that will benefit from reading it. Would I read it out loud to a class? No, I would not. Rather, it’s a story better saved for reflection and possibly for discussion in a small group or with a reading partner. It takes a lot of trust just to talk about this book. In some school districts, teachers may face the battery of parental approval and permission slips. Oh, good luck with that.

Dixie tells us her own story. She’s born in a tiny, impoverished hamlet in Alabama in the 1960’s. Her parents are having money problems, and their relationship isn’t going well. Evie, Dixie’s mother, is on the verge of a breakdown of some sort, and she takes out her frustration and rage on the child that looks just like her, and that of course is Dixie. In an effort to apologize, she sits down with her daughter later on and tells her that there are times she can’t control herself:

“’I can’t explain why I react like I do sometimes, you know? It’s done and I can’t take it back, although God knows, I wish I could.’

“I whispered, my voice hoarse, ‘God don’t hear us.’”

At one point a social worker shows up at the house and Dixie has to decide whether to spill it or sweep it under the rug. It’s interesting to see how it plays out.

Ultimately, Evie summons her family for help, and Uncle Ray comes all the way from New Hampshire to lend assistance. Unfortunately, Uncle Ray has a whole lot of demons of his own.  Dixie doesn’t like the way Ray stares at her as if she were his next meal; she doesn’t like the way he brushes up against her. But when she tries to tell her brother how she feels, he laughs at her and points out that she isn’t all that attractive, and her body hasn’t exactly grown boobs; why would a grown up man be interested in dumb old Dixie? And so Ray, who is the sole source of grocery and clothing money for this miserable clan, is left to do what he wants to do unchecked.

“Uncle Ray smelled different, not of Old Spice, but something else, something sharper.”

When Dixie threatens to expose him, Uncle Ray points out that it’s basically his word against hers, and would she prefer he close his checkbook and drive back to New Hampshire? By now Dixie knows what it’s like to be genuinely hungry for days on end. President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society plan has not yet taken root; there isn’t any assistance available from the state. Sometimes a kid had to stay quiet or starve.

“I felt something break, something turned off like a light switch in the very center of me.”

It’s a hard, hard story to read, and yet I can’t help think of all the girls and women that will read this book and know that they aren’t so strange or terrible, and that this does happen to other girls in other families.

I’ve tried not to give away more than the broadest contours of the story so that you can find out the details for yourself. One thing that I would change if I had the power is the whole adoption thread, which is superfluous and In its own way, more harmful than helpful. It’s almost as if the author is afraid to acknowledge that blood relatives will do this thing to their very own children; yet they will. Hell yes, they will. Any teacher that’s been in the classroom for a few years can tell you that much.

As for me, I have my own story.  [Skip paragraph if you prefer to stick to the book itself.] There were some awkward guitar lessons I had when I was about twelve years old. My guitar instructor had recently decided to teach out of his home; he lived alone. One day after my private lesson, my father asked me, in the car, how that lesson had gone. I was a little afraid of being made fun of, but I told him anyway that my instructor made me feel uncomfortable. I felt as if I spent as much time walking my folding chair away from his as I did working out the chords on the neck of my instrument. I’d move over; he’d move over. His hand would land on my thigh while we were talking. I’d flinch, pull away, and move my chair. He’d move his chair. All of this within the framework of a perfectly normal guitar lesson, if you ignored all the strange furniture and hand-moving. My father, who died in 1978, heard what I said and told me we could get another guitar teacher. I asked if I would have to be the one to tell the man that I wasn’t returning, and he said no. Just consider that chapter over and done.

If only it could be so easy for everyone.

The book isn’t easy, but girls deserve the chance to read it if they want to, and likely there are some boys that could stand to read it, too. This book is for sale now; highly recommended.