April’s Big Picture
by Anne Nesbet
When Augusta Hoopes Neubronner arrives at her Gramma Hoopes’ home for orphans with her suitcase in one hand and her cherished French horn in the other, she doesn’t fully comprehend the circumstances that led her here. It’s 1941 and the Depression still hasn’t released its grip on the nation, and Mama simply has to take that good job in New York and live in a boarding house that doesn’t allow children. That still doesn’t explain why Papa, who was supposed to deliver Gusta to Gramma in person, abruptly left her unaccompanied on the bus, a mystery Gusta will soon solve.
At Gramma Hoopes’ big, boisterous house in Springdale, Maine, Gusta quickly learns that not all resident “orphans” are parentless, and everyone who comes under the care of Gramma and Aunt Marion is family. Gusta thrives in Springdale, with the friendship of Cousin Bess, who lives nearby and is delighted to welcome a new relative, and Josie, a high school girl who has supposedly aged out of Gramma’s care but stays on to help. With Josie’s kind intervention, fifth- grader Gusta meets the high school music teacher, Miss Kendall, who recognizes her talent and invites her to play with the high schoolers. Even the disappointing news that she needs eyeglasses turns to Gusta’s favor as she takes on part-time work with Mr. Bertmann, the oculist, who values her responsible work ethic, facility with numbers, and affection for the homing pigeons he’s training as messengers.
Of course too much sweetness could sour a novel, and no quasi-orphaned heroine worth embracing can simply mark time until her parents arrive to reclaim her. Gusta’s trials begin when she stumbles into a rat’s nest of years-old drama—overt and covert—involving Mr. Kendall, the local mill owner, who treats the Hoopes women with angry contempt. Here Nesbet cunningly pulls together the tiny clues and quiet themes she has stealthily tucked among her homey episodes, revealing the relationships that make ill will, once established, so difficult to dispel in a close- knit small town. When Gusta approaches Mr. Kendall to beg his help for a friend she only evokes his rage. This leads directly to misunderstandings between Gusta and Miss Kendall (the mill owner’s sister), which leads to Gusta’s heartbreaking loss of her horn and, ultimately, to the revelation of Josie’s parentage, which in turn illuminates why Gramma and Aunt Marion opened their home to parentless children years ago. While the Hoopes/Kendall drama heats from simmer to boil, a wave of anti-German sentiment puts Gusta, Mr. Bertmann, and Gusta’s father in the crosshairs of local nativist gossip. Gusta’s unwavering moral compass and the support of loving, level-headed parents, however, ensure a happy ending.
Nesbet’s current outing is about as far as you can get from her previous Cloud and Wallfish (BCCB 10/16), set in East Germany just before the fall of the Wall. In contrast this novel, based on Nesbet’s mother’s experiences during World War II, has the hallmarks of such beloved domestic tales as Eight Cousins (with its only-child protagonist tossed among newfound relatives at the rowdy Aunt Hill), Anne of Green Gables (with Gramma a steely, tender-hearted matriarch à la Marilla Cuthbert), and The Penderwicks (with its vividly developed episodes carried by a persistent undercurrent of longing for absent parents.) The narrative style is deeply satisfying: unexpected flourishes of drollery grace the text; the theme of Gusta’s new spectacles-enhanced vision gracefully serves as plot point and metaphor; and an examination of folkloric Wishes respects both believers and doubters. Sometimes kids just need a book to cozy up with in an overstuffed chair, a secluded treehouse, or a nest of pillows. This is exactly that book. (See p. 347 for publication information.)
Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer