An unopened book is a tease that can lead to disappointment. But here is one that delivers. It’s well-written and as deep as a blue-water swimming hole that kids used to flock to, before everyone put up no trespassing signs, afraid of liability.
It’s a book that transports you to a time and place: 1979 on Pisgah Ridge in North Carolina, a community where “there were no blacks… Sure there were the ones who cleaned our houses and mowed our lawns, but they all left on the last bus” to return to the town in the valley. “And they knew enough to never miss that ride down.”
The narrator, Shelby, is a high school sophomore and the only girl in a “mangy pack” consisting of her brother Emory, his best friend Jimbo Riggs --- son of the pastor of the largest Baptist church on the Ridge --- “and a spare friend of theirs and an excess cousin.” Virtually every summer evening, these kids, riding in the back of Emory’s pick-up, end up at a swimming hole --- not causing trouble, just hanging out.
But there’s a new family on the Ridge, from Sri Lanka. They’re not only dark-skinned but Muslim. Rather impulsively, Turtle invites the teen daughter, Sanna, to ride along to Blue Hole. Over the summer, she’s tentatively, then dramatically, welcomed into the group. But not everybody is ready for an integrated Ridge, say nothing of an integrated creek.
Right up front, before the flashback, the reader knows something will go awry: “It was the men in white bed sheets that changed us forever --- them and the Blue Hole, that is.”
The narrator doesn’t claim a Christian faith, neither as a teen nor as an adult transplanted to Boston. Yet she notices its evidence in others: her Methodist mother and particularly Jimbo, the Baptist preacher’s son, who holds the “mangy pack” and the book together.
Author Joy Jordan-Lake’s writing --- her characterizations and figures of speech --- is downright refreshing. Though in chapter after chapter the teens’ parents are largely absent from the scene, they are not totally “out of the loop.” In one scene the phone rings when the Garden Club ladies are meeting at Shelby’s house. It’s Sanna, inviting Shelby for a sleepover. Shelby’s mother gives permission and then says, “Shelby, sugar.” Shelby notes, “It was the kind of sugar that works like a yank to a leash…
“‘Who was it? Which of your girlfriends asked you to sleep over?’
“Bless Mama. She said this as if there were legions of girls waiting to ask me to their houses… ‘The, um, the new girl.’
“Now, all white Southern women keep as a weapon…a certain smile that can be whipped out of storage and tacked up in an instant, covering over a multitude of too-candid moments.”
Shelby explains: Mama “was considering, I knew, that the Garden Club ladies were gripping sweet tea beside her, but also what Jesus would do. ‘Well, now,’ she murmured. ‘“Turn ye not away strangers, lest ye entertain angels unawares.’ Isn’t that right?’ Mama looked to the wife of the good Reverend Riggs” --- a descendant of several Confederate heroes --- and Jimbo’s mother.
I finished reading BLUE HOLE BACK HOME 24 hours ago, and the characters and setting linger in my mind. This is a delightfully haunting book. I don’t want to give too much away, but I urge you to take my advice and read it.
Reviewed by Evelyn Bence on March 1, 2008