Christina Adam's LOVE AND COUNTRY is a complex book with complex characters, yet is written in a simple prose depicting the beauty of a small quiet ranching town in Idaho. The story takes place shortly after the Vietnam War, and the backdrop of this small town helps add to this tale of alienation and acceptance.
Kenny Swanson and his mother Lenna (Lenora) are newcomers to this small Idaho town. Kenny has just turned fourteen, and while it is difficult for all teenagers during this phase of life, he also has to deal with being new in school, yearning for a father who rarely visits, and wishing he could participate in his only real passion: the local rodeo. Because they don't have any insurance yet, his mother has asked him not to ride for a few more months, at least until the insurance kicks in. He has promised to abide by her wishes.
However, he finds himself gravitating towards the rodeo grounds where rodeo star Roddy Moyers works. Roddy is a hero in this young boy's eyes and so Kenny has quite a pleasant shock when he meets Roddy and is encouraged to ride. The other men tease Kenny when he admits he has promised his mother that he wouldn't, and of course this does nothing for his self-esteem. He hides his anger from them as they heckle and laugh at him. He's angry not only because they have made fun of him, but because they have also made fun of his mother.
In another part of town, Cynthia Dustin and her parents are preparing to attend a funeral for the Lattimore baby. There is obvious tension between daughter and father, but it is not clear why. The bulk of her story comprises an odd relationship between them, and it is not until the very end of the book that everything is revealed to Cynthia and the reader. There are hints of some form of abuse in her story, but nothing is ever said outright until the concluding chapters. The clues throughout the book are mostly from Cynthia's behavior and feelings, her thoughts of unhappiness, and the hopes of a better life away from her parent's home. But even Earl's behavior towards his daughter and his obvious disdain for her comes as a surprise to the reader, as it is hard to believe that a parent could hate a child as much as Earl hates Cynthia.
The moment of truth is revealed when Cynthia learns of an event in their lives that caused a rift so extensive that there was no happiness left in Earl to give to Cynthia. It is after Earl's near-fatal heart attack when Cynthia learns the truth about her father and why there was so much hatred coming from him.
Roddy in the meantime has made his acquaintance with Lenna and a romance soon flourishes to Kenny's embarrassment. On top of dealing with his mother's potential sex life, he is also coping with the loss of his father, a man who never came through with any of his promises to Kenny. This results in Kenny lashing out even more, turning his anger and resentment towards his father into rebellious behavior that causes great grief for his mother and nearly costs him his life.
Kenny's friendship with Cynthia does more harm than good, and the fact that Cynthia had relations with Roddy does not help at all. It creates a complex set of social connections that seems to push the two teens to spiral out of control.
The writing in LOVE AND COUNTRY is beautiful, and life in this small Idaho town is certainly a far cry from life in the city that this reviewer is familiar with. The story itself is written in such a way that there does not seem to be any connection at first between the main characters, nor does there seem to be a single theme throughout the book. But upon finishing the last page, it all comes together and one sees this work as a coming-of-age novel, with themes of acceptance and forgiveness in a world where there is often no control over one's own life.
Reviewed by Marie Hashima Lofton(Ratmammy@lofton.org) on January 22, 2011
Love and Country