I absolutely loved "South of Reason" by Cindy Eppes. Not only do I love finding wonderful new (to me) authors, but I just love finding good books at thrift shops ($1.50 for this one). I have great affection for smart, plucky pre-teen or teenage protagonists. I like them even better if they're Southern. Kayla Sanders is both.
Thirteen-year-old Kayla and her family have just moved to Rosalita, TX, as the book begins. On the very first day, she meets next-door neighbor Lou Jean Perry, who will become a prime adult role model in her life. She also meets Lou Jean's son Charles Dale Perry, who quickly becomes her best friend.
On the surface it would seem to be an idyllic summer for Kayla, with warming and welcoming Lou Jean teaching her to can fruits and vegetables and put up pickles, catching up with her beloved, wise Grandmother Rose, hanging out with Charles Dale, taking a trip to Mexico with Rose and her friend Carmen. But Kayla soon realizes there are enormous reasons why her mom and dad left East Texas and came back to Rosalita, their hometown, and why they moved in right next door to the big Spanish house owned by Lou Jean, a widow whose husband was killed in Vietnam. Old secrets come to light like the old photographs Kayla finds of her parents' and Lou Jean's high school days.
Over a brief few months, Kayla has to face many stunning revelations and some overwhelming changes in her family. She puzzles over why her normally conservative mother starts wearing sundresses and getting youthful haircuts, and why her mother is so taken with Charles Dale but dislikes Lou Jean. She finds out that Lou Jean's fun loving, cheerful nature is a facade for some serious mental problems. And she discovers that Charles Dale is way more to her than a best friend.
Kayla reacts to these discoveries in the way a tender young teen full of unfamiliar emotions might: in a variety of cascading feelings. She is shocked and saddened. She is torn asunder and feels betrayed. But she also finds wisdom, maturity, acceptance and overwhelming love.
Settling in to read "South of Reason" is to slide into the river for a cool swim on a hot day. There's just something about the Southern landscape. You have mockingbirds and frozen Milky Ways, swimming holes and honeysuckle, fried chicken and First Baptist ladies' prayer circles, girls wearing overalls and people saying "y'all". I don't think this particular book mentions moon pies and RC Cola, but it might as well have.
This book reminds me of many other Southern books and characters, including Scout Finch in "To Kill A Mockingbird", Jeannette Wall's true story "The Glass Castle", Ruth Ann Boatwright in "Bastard out of Carolina" and Tessa Lee in "Firefly Cloak". All are survivors, and we find ourselves rooting for them all the way.