Sharon Creech was born in South Euclid, capsule Ohio, ed in 1945, and received her B.A. from Hiram College. This actually means something to me, as I currently live fairly close to both places. However, she spent a lot of summers in Kentucky, got an M.A. from George Mason University, and then proceeded to live in England and Switzerland, none of which I’ve done or even come close to doing. Her novels, which are generally realistic fiction, have won a good deal of awards, including the Newbery, Carnegie, and Young People’s Reader’s Choice awards. This volume won the Newbery Award in 1995.
This bittersweet novel has two plots interwoven. One is the main story, Sal’s story, where she is taking a trip with her grandparents across the country in a car to go visit her mother, and the other is Sal’s friend Phoebe’s story, which Sal is relating to her grandparents as they travel. Both stories involve girls whose mothers left for various reasons, and their ways of dealing with the situation. Sal’s story is set in Bybanks, Kentucky, where she used to live; in Euclid, Ohio, where they moved after Sal’s mom left; and in the car, going to Idaho. Phoebe’s story is set almost exclusively in Euclid, Ohio.
I originally read the book back in about 1995 when it was still mostly new, but I’d forgotten exactly everything about it. However, I was reading carefully (as I do, sometimes) and I figured out what had happened long before the narrator let us know. I suspect that careful YA readers will be able to figure out what has happened as well, but it doesn’t diminish the emotional impact of the ending. Sal has a difficult summer, to say the least, and one can only hope that her strength of character can continue to carry her through any other difficult situations she encounters as maturely as she handled these.
I didn’t really identify with Sal; I identified more with her mother, or Phoebe’s mother. Or perhaps I just found their stories more compelling than that of a tween whose mother left. I read very carefully for the clues regarding why their mothers had left, and I found their reasons for leaving quite interesting. However, at first it’s supposed that Phoebe’s mother leaves for one reason; it turns out that it’s something entirely different. While I can understand that the second reason is valid, I almost would have preferred that she had left for the originally-supposed reason (that her life was generally unfulfilling, sans avocation). Then again, the other reason ties the stories together better. It’s possible that this can be blamed on the fact that I am an adult female, or it could just be that the mental state of the mothers were obscure, making them more tantalizing.
I know why it won the Newbery; it will be obvious to readers. For one thing, it’s exceptionally well-done. The balance between the two different stories — the flashback and the current time — is masterful, and Ms. Creech manages to enter the mind of an early-adolescent girl so thoroughly that I was drawn in completely. There are hints of other stories, for other characters, and she manages to keep these minor characters exactly where they belong, but not so far back that they’re wallpaper. For another, it’s an emotional story, and the main character and her family are very sympathetic. Obviously it’s a must-read for nearly everyone it isn’t very long and reads very quickly, but even adults will find it quite readable and quite powerful. 5/5 stars.