Little, Brown and Company, 2011. ISBN 978-0-316-08447-5.
Reviewed by Sharon Lippincott
Posted on 08/15/2011
On the surface, JoAnn Beard's novel, In Zanesville, is a touching portrait of a young girl in Anytown, USA in the process of transcending her dysfunctional family as she works her way through the virtual chrysalis between childhood and maturity. Her exquisitely intimate thoughts and reflections combine with a skillful rendering of social conditions of the seventies to evoke a hauntingly complete sense of that age in both calendar and human development sense.
It's this multi-layered perspective that sets this novel apart. Beard's treatment of her nameless narrator (Beard's omission was so deftly done that I did not notice the lack of a name until I began working on this review) is so sensitive and tender that she makes sense. We understand why she skirts around her floundering mother and can't find the words to patch things up with her best friend. We feel her despair at realizing a pet feral kitten is likely to die and being the odd girl out when nine boys show up to pair off with ten girls at a party. We hold our breath with her as a boy's hand creeps up under her coat at a football game. We admire her basic good sense and cheer her on when she momentarily flounders. Even if our personal experiences were quite different, we remember what it was like to be young and unsure, full of desperate longings, hopes, and dreams.
The book offers much more than a reminder of volatile youth. Beard has documented life in middle-America just before the dawn of the Electronic Age. She reminds us what life was like before computers, cell phones and Facebook, and she reminds us that many facets of the human condition are timeless. We've always had alcoholic fathers and mothers who do what has to be done to get the family through the tough patches. We've always had those who didn't quite fit in along with those who tease and bully. Girls have always been filled with longing and most wondered how to catch a man.
This story is powerfully written in first person, present tense, but if Beard had focused exclusively on the narrator's point of view, it would not be nearly so compelling for mature readers. Fortunately she skillfully uses dialogue and the narrator's reflections to obliquely fill in many details about the best friend, mother and a few other characters. This rounds the book out and builds a sense of total community.
Altogether this is a tender story generally lacking in serious tension, while sweetly reminding us of the perils of the transition to maturity in the larger context. It will remind older readers of their own youth while reminding them to have compassion for younger generations. Although it will primarily be of interest to women, men who read it should gain more understanding of the challenges their female offspring face.
Jo Ann Beard is the author of The Boys of My Youth and the recipient of fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. She teaches nonfiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Rhinebeck, New York.
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