It's the autumn of 1973. Thomas Mahey, 17 years old and facing a bleak future career-wise, falls in love with his 25-year-old History of Technology teacher, Alice Lowe, around the same time he finally meets a town legend: Shiloh Tanager, an eccentric who lives in a hobbled-together shack in the woods and far on the outskirts of society.
Miss Lowe --- or Alice, as Thomas soon learns to call her --- doesn't maintain boundaries between herself and her student. Soon he is at her house, kissing her. The night Alice confides that she's afraid her brutal ex-husband will come for her, she and Thomas go to bed. Simultaneously, an accident triggers the town's flood warning alarm.
Thomas won't tell his parents where he was when the town evacuated to higher ground, resulting in a family rift. Nervous about her ex-husband, Alice acquires a surprising roommate --- Shiloh Tanager. Thomas's parents invite Shiloh over for dinner. In an almost magical way he enchants them, although he's filthy, arrives via the backdoor, and eats enormous amounts of food. He actually performs magic tricks after dinner. And then, as Thomas says, "For his next trick, he made me disappear."
Thomas, Alice and Shiloh leave town. They head for Vermont but stop first in New York City to meet Shiloh's friend, Parker, who knows people living in Vermont in an abandoned amusement park based on The Sound of Music. When the trio reach the commune and meet Gregor, the leader, they decide to travel on. Eventually they find an abandoned house, which they claim as their own. This newly formed family of three buys gardening supplies and scavenges furniture from the dump. However, they forget to buy food and gorge on candy.
A slight crack in their unity appears when Shiloh insists they visit what Thomas refers to as "The Sound of Music Commune." Shiloh is enthusiastic while Thomas and Alice are not. The latter two prevail; they remain in their newly claimed home rather than join the commune. More pressure is put on them though when they attend a commune party; most of the women are hugely pregnant and Thomas is uneasy --- even more so when Gregor asks them to move in, and to pay to join.
Tensions mount when Shiloh's friend Parker arrives. He and Shiloh speak cryptically of "our old friend" and move something mysterious into the house in the dark of the night. Shiloh and Parker spend a puzzling amount of time working on the house, laying attic insulation and reinforcing a column in the basement.
Arguments over chores escalate. Their money dwindles, and an unexpected disaster causes Thomas and Alice to wonder if they truly know their roommate at all.
An intriguing mystery threads through this compelling story, written in an original voice. A subplot involving miracles, a young man's passion, and the search for the meaning of "home" all add up to a read that's difficult to put down. THE BEST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD is a memorable debut novel that will have readers eagerly anticipating Justin Tussing's next book.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on January 23, 2007
The Best People in the World