Twelve-year-old Louise (Lou) Mayhew lives with her Dad, the local junk dealer, her (pregnant) mom who is an artist, and her grandma Bertie, who, in addition to being the town flirt and gossip, is also a keen local history patron and the family's amateur genealogist. They all live together in an antebellum home in small-town Tennessee, a home that has been in the Mayhew family for generations. The story takes place in 1999.
Lou and her best friend, Benjamin Zerto (Benzer, for short) are lamenting over what is looking to be a boring and uneventful summer break, when they overhear Lou's parents talking about how they may lose their house and property to the town through eminent domain.
Lou is heartbroken, but she, along with Benzer, her friend Franklin, and her cousin Patty become determined to find a way to somehow save the house.
Before long, the kids discover a mysterious letter in an old family Bible, and set off on a mission to figure out any important Civil War connections the house may have had, so that it can be listed on the National Register of Historic Places (and saved from demolition). The kids visit the local library and county history museum in their quest, and learn an old story about stolen gold and murder involving Lou's ancestors during the Civil War.
In a style reminiscent of the 1980s movie Goonies, the four kids become determined to figure out what happened to this stolen gold, knowing that recovering it could help Lou's parents pay for the legal fees they would incur if they fought for the house. In a bit of family history serendipity, Lou finds an ancestor's diary in a secret compartment of a wooden box she saves from the remains of a local estate sale. And then, the pieces of the puzzle start to come together...but I'll save that for you to read about.
There are so many great family history themes presented over the course of this novel, some in actual conversations between the characters. Here are just a few that would lead to awesome discussions with kids in a book club setting:
- Our ancestors weren't perfect, and may have done things that were morally wrong.
- The beliefs and decisions of your ancestors do not define who you are as a person.
- Stories passed down orally through the generations will usually contain a little bit of truth and a little bit of fiction.
- Learning history becomes way more interesting when your own ancestors were involved.
A running parallel plot throughout this book involves Isaac, a teenager who works for Lou's father, and who is a pretty great football player with hopes of getting a local scholarship so he can attend the University of Tennessee. Isaac, who is African-American, does not receive the scholarship, which is due solely to the racist beliefs of a local high school coach.
Honestly, I really enjoyed this plot as much as the family history one, because it demonstrated some of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways in which racism still permeates through our modern society. And it shows kids how to have the courage to speak out against it and rally behind those who are affected by it.
©2018 Emily Kowalski Schroeder