In my parents’ attic there’s a black and white photo of my maternal grandparents, Inabel and Carl, from the days when they were “courting.” It was taken in the mid 1920s a few years before the Dust Bowl nearly destroyed the agriculture and prairies of Oklahoma and most of the Midwest.
I’ve always loved the photo because it showed how beautiful Inabel, my “Mema,” was at the age of 18, with her bobbed light brown hair and chiffon dress, and the dashing profile of my “Pa” in his vested suit. They’re leaning against a car with running boards, and in their faces I see two young adults in love, both of them smiling with a sense of shyness and mischief at the same time.
As a writer I also love the photo because of the story behind it – which is that it was taken not too long after young Carl, a manager-trainee at the town bank, was sent out to collect a debt from a farmer’s daughter who had written a couple of checks that slightly exceeded the amount of money in her account. As the story goes, Carl and Inabel were married within just a few months after that image was captured in front of her family’s farmhouse.
Today, after reading Lou Bayard’s Lucky Strikes, I have the opportunity to let the story of Inabel and Carl meander to different places in my mind. I’m imagining them on a long road trip to Washington, D.C. a few years later, taking the scenic route through Warren County in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Chances are pretty good they would have passed by a tiny store fronted by two gas pumps, within sight of a frame house built during the Civil War, all of it called to their attention by a sign on a tombstone reading BRENDA’S OASIS.
If they passed by at a certain time in the station’s history, they would have been met at the pump by nine-year-old Earle Hoyle, and if they had moseyed inside the store they would have been encouraged to buy film and an updated road map and a few pieces of candy for the rest of the trip.
What’s especially important to my imagining of their journey, however, is what would have happened if they’d needed someone to take a look under their hood.
In that case they would have been tended to by 14 year old Amelia – who went by “Melia” – Hoyle. Based on certain events that happen in the later chapters of this book I’m sure Melia was a pretty girl despite the stains that would have been on her clothes after hours of changing oil, replacing fan belts, and diagnosing the causes of rattles and shakes with the finesse of an expert mechanic even though she’s mostly self-taught.
From the very first page of this story, Melia is vividly and entertainingly true to life as a teenager in rural Virginia during the Depression. In chapter one, for example, she’s at her mother’s bedside when she takes her last breath. Here, she tells us:
“I could feel, beneath the hair, her whole scalp crackling. I think now maybe that was her soul flying off. I’m nearly sure of it because when I looked at the rest of her – her face, her hands – her bare white legs – her eyes – she was empty.”
“Gone. That’s what they always say about dead folks when they don’t want to say dead. But that’s how it was with Mama. Whatever’d been there a second ago, making her eyelids twitch and her breath hitch . . . well, somehow or other it’d slipped away when I wasn’t looking. Gone.”
That’s just a glimpse of the way Melia tells this story, with beautiful language in a narrative that perfectly evokes the poverty and rural town attitudes of the time – and in a voice that sounds completely authentic for a 14-year old girl who only had a few years of education before dropping out to help her mother run the family business.
And what a story it is. After losing her mother, Melia’s is determined to do everything within her power to keep her brother, Earle, and her little sister, Janey, from being taken away and put into foster care.
That quest would be hard enough under the watchful eyes of the small-town decision-makers who have always viewed the Hoyle family as a “Pagan” clan living on the fringe. It soon becomes a matter of life and death because of big-fish-in-a-small-town deal-maker Harley Blevins, a sadistic extortionist who’s determined to seize control of the Hoyle family’s assets.
This is the heart of the story’s conflict – which comes down to a powerful, avaricious businessman squaring off against a valiant young woman who simply wants to keep her family and their legacy intact.
That conflict is a perfect driver of the suspense. From the beginning to the end, you’re rooting for Melia and her family and the surprising allies to come to their aid.
What will keep this story in my mind until my last days, however, are so many scenes that are easy to imagine in old-time photographs or movie reels. Or better yet, in some kind of time warp where the editors at Scribner’s Illustrated Classics found this manuscript, realized that some day it would also be a classic, and enlisted W.C. Wyeth to make the American Depression bloom on the page with images like these:
A rural burial in a hillside grave dug by Melia, topped with wildflowers picked by her little sister, Janey, and a cross whittled out of sticks by Earle.
A hobo tumbling off a passing flatbread truck loaded with coal.
Melia Hoyle staring into the barrel of a shotgun wielded by Harley Blevins as flames and smoke shoot into the sky.
Along the way there are many other memorable passages showing Melia’s intuitive judgment of character, her discovery of a lifetime love, and the power of redemption from some pretty surprising places.
If you look for this book at Barnes & Noble or your local library, you’ll probably find it in the Young Adult section. That’s good – because it’s the kind of story that shows young teens how amazing reading can be. Yet publishers are well-aware that adults are major fans of the YA genre – as proven by the popularity of books such as Thirteen Reasons Why, If I Stay and The Fault in Our Stars. I therefore wouldn’t be surprised to see hundreds of Amazon reviews of Lucky Strikes (which is as compelling as each of these works but with a so much humor and a wonderfully happy ending) by certified grown-ups a few months from now.
That’s because we love stories driven by compelling conflicts, brisk pacing and memorable characters. And because so many of us have experienced those eerie moments when we look into the eyes of people in photographs from a different time and place and wonder what kinds of stories they’d have to tell.
Like a photo, taken by Inabel’s Brownie camera, at a brief but memorable stop for gas and a postcard at Brenda’s Oasis in the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains.
I won’t find it in my parents’ attic, but thanks to Lucky Strikes, I’ll always have it in the back of my mind.