The Heebie-Jeebie Girl (Susan Petrone)

When I started writing book reviews, I resolved that I would not include spoilers. When I made that decision, I meant content-based spoilers, ones that often come at the end of books. Petrone’s novel has challenged my commitment in a new way because there are two stylistic spoilers to navigate here. I am going to break my rule and spoil half of one of them because it is revealed on the first page of the novel. Youngstown, the city in which this wonderful novel is set, is also one of the voices of the novel, not only in the opening pages, but also in such an appropriately meaningful and innovative way throughout the book.

It is appropriate that the city have a voice here because in some ways, this is a story about a place, the changes it undergoes, and the resilience it demonstrates. A mill closes, the university seeks to expand and the city remains. What makes Petrone’s account of Youngstown most remarkable is not just this resilience but the love she shows for the place and its people, no matter how flawed they may be.

And unlike many writers today, Petrone does not overstuff her plot with the stuff of melodrama. Instead, the story turns on one somewhat ambiguous moment that at first alarms us and then, in a twist that made me gasp, Petrone gently challenges us to understand it. Though we learn of the consequences of this action, we are invited to see its origin, to empathize.
It is often the case that authors who employ the voices of children often get them wrong in one of two ways. Either the child knows too much, an adult’s voice in a child’s body, or the child is cartoonish and wooden, because the author has forgotten the sounds of childhood. Petrone gets the voice of Hope so incredibly right. The presentation of the First Communion scene, for example, is an absolute master class in how children make sense of their world.

There is one plot spoiler to avoid as well. It was a risk, but because in an era when all about her seem to be engaging in oral and visual pyrotechnics, where people seem to think that louder means better, Petrone dares to proceed quietly, the risk works perfectly all the way to the end, which I am also not going to spoil.

Allow me a digression. When our daughter was younger, she read and read and read Sharon Draper’s OUT OF MY MIND. When she asked for a second copy because she wanted to underline her favorite sentences in one copy as she kept re-reading the other, I bought her the second copy and read it myself before I handed it off to her. It is a very good book. Shortly thereafter, we went to see Draper at a bookstore and she apologized for the gap between books. She said, “People kept coming up to me and saying, ‘This is the best book ever,’ and so I got to thinking, ‘How do I write the next book after the best book ever?’ Well, Ms. Petrone, I’d say you have the same problem. Take the time you need, though. I’ll be right here waiting.

Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake

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