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A Book A Week: In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard

In Zanesville, a fictional town in Illinois, we find Jo, a most appealing heroine, who manages to navigate the tricky emotional swells of adolescence with detached self-possession, humor, and a lot of courage. In her novel In Zanesville, Jo Ann Beard takes the traditional role of the outsider/observer and fills it with this everygirl who faces the challenges posed by boys, cheerleaders and her own mother with equanimity and good sense. And her mother! What a mid-century mother she has! Beset on all fronts by an alcoholic husband, low-wage work and wayward children, she nevertheless supports our girl at every turn through a combination of backhanded compliments, cautionary tales and too many cigarettes.

The book opens with a brilliant set piece that stands alone as a great bit of writing. "We can't believe the house is on fire. It's so embarrassing first of all, and so dangerous second of all. Also, we're supposed to be in charge here, so there's a sense of somebody not doing their job." Jo and her friend Felicia are babysitting a motley crew of children. The fire, followed by the arrival of Jo's mother, the fire department, and finally the children's unsavory parents, is by turns funny, exhausting and horrific. It exemplifies Beard's narrative voice perfectly: deadpan, droll, devastating.

In Zanesville is set in the mid-1970s, and Beard captures the era perfectly. It was a sad time in suburbia. Immediately post-Vietnam, the energy of the 1960s had dissipated, but the glossy 1980s hadn't begun. No one really knew what to do with themselves. I was in high school then, and I remember that, and all the details Beard so lovingly includes: the unflattering band uniforms, the reruns of Lassie, the canned corn. Beard has her characters experience both the mundane and the astonishing every day, which is a lot like what it is to be a teenager, both then and now. We don't see the kind of adult Jo turns into, but that's okay, we have faith that she will do just fine.

Reviews of this book in the New York Times and on NPR mention the "nameless narrator," and Beard herself confirms this in an NPR interview. She says, "I felt so close inside her head that it really didn't occur to me to name her all the way through, because I felt in some way that I was her." But Beard does give her a name: It's Josephine, as evidenced in this paragraph where the narrator is talking about Amy March in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott:

She was the one I most wanted to be, even though I had the same name as another. Little Amy March grew up while no one was looking, wandered away from wherever it was they lived, and become an artist, while the one named after me had to stay and be in a worse book later.

Of course "the one who had to stay and be in a worse book later" is Jo March (and the worse book later is Jo's Boys). Why does Beard then claim in the interview that the character has no name? Did she forget that she actually gave this wonderful girl a name similar to her own? Perhaps it's just a test of close reading. If so, did I pass?

Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.

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