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Two Great Coming-of-Age Novels for Summer

Summer seems conducive to digging into a hefty novel that follows a main character through some life-changing challenges. Here are a couple of my recent favorites, the first with a summer appropriate swamp setting.

These are two very different books. Swamplandia’s heroine is 13-year-old Ava Bigtree, the youngest of an very eccentric Floridian family. They run a low-budget theme park in the Everglades, where Ava’s mother, an alligator wrestler, is the featured act. Tassie Keltjin, the heroine of A Gate at the Stairs, is a farm girl, closet musician, babysitter and college student in Wisconsin. Some of the same themes and questions come up, though. Am I my brother’s keeper? My parents: heroes or humiliating crackpots? And most importantly, who am I going to turn out to be, if I make it to adulthood?

Swamplandia has a haunted/haunting quality, with ghostly presences (Ava’s mother, her sister Ossie’s imaginary boyfriend) central to moving the plot forward. Several characters — Ava’s father, and a shadowy vagrant known as the Birdman — turn out to be not at all what they seem. There’s a rival theme park, the World of Darkness:

The World of Darkness was located in southwest Loomis County, just off the highway ramp. The camera pulled back to reveal… a whole spooling solar system of parking lots. On its western edge, the Leviathan touched a green checkerboard of suburban lawns. A moat of lava lapped at the carports, the houses at the World’s perimeter looking small and vexed. The World of Darkness offered things that Swamplandia! could not: escalator tours of the rings of Hell, bloodred swimming pools, boiling colas. Easy access to the mainland roads.

If this sounds on the surreal side, it definitely is. It’s also heartbreaking, affecting, and in spots, very funny. Without giving away too much in the way of plot, Ava bravely and/or foolishly takes off on a mission to save her family, which keeps the plot racing along in the second half of the book. Ava is an unforgettable heroine, and the world she inhabits is wildly unique.

The world in Gate at the Stairs is less exotic. Tassie’s story alternates between her parents’ farm and her life in a fictional midwestern college town. It’s packed with multiple subplots — in fact, some friends I’ve pressed the book on said it would have worked better as a collection of linked short stories than as a novel, but I respectfully disagree. I experienced the novel first as an audiobook, and then read it old-style a couple of years later, and I’d forgotten how many elements Moore works in (interracial adoption, tragically bad parenting, crumbling marriage, college romance, struggling restaurant with overly precious food, suspected terrorist cell, 9/11, on and on) in this bulging suitcase of a story. There are shocking developments that are hard to read, butting up against collegiate humor, colliding with wordplay between Tassie and her dad. For me, it all seems to work. The characters are real, flawed, and believable. Tassie in particular is a great heroine. Here’s a sample of what goes on in her head:

I didn’t know anything about adoption. I’d known only one adopted girl when I was growing up, Becky Sussluch, spoiled and beautiful and at sixteen having an affair with a mussed and handsome student teacher that I myself had a crush on. In general I thought of adoption much as I thought of most things in life: uneasily. Adoption seemed both a cruel joke and a lovely daydream — a nice way of avoiding the blood and pain of giving birth, or, from a child’s perspective, a realized fantasy of your parents not really being your parents. Your genes could thrust one arm in the air and pump up and down. YES! You were not actually related to Them!

I’m sure I’ll listen to the audio version, read by Mia Barron, a third time, and read the book a second. I don’t do this with many books, but this is definitely one of them.

author photos, from top:

Michael Lionstar
Linda Nyland