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  • Kathryn Smith (Anderson Independent Mail

My Other New Favorite Review!

“Lightningstruck” offers nuanced look at early 1960s

Anderson 3:38 p.m. ET Oct. 26, 2016

The preteen girl struggling from childhood to womanhood has been the beguiling narrator or central figure in any number of coming-of-age novels, from E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web” to Lee Smith’s “The Last Day the Dogbushes Bloomed” and Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Secret Life of Bees.” Add to that list Ashley Mace Havird’s “Lightningstruck” (Mercer University Press, $16), a mesmerizing tale set on a tobacco farm in Marion County, South Carolina, in 1964.

It’s a hot, sticky summer, and 11-year-old Etta McDaniel is mad at everyone: at her parents, who are focusing all their attention on her younger brother, Will, and his health problems; at the family’s faithful black housekeeper, Cleo; and especially at her horse, Troy, a disappointingly balky old nag who has been banished to a tenant farmer’s pen after an incident involving a younger child.

When Troy survives a lightning strike that leaves him hideously disfigured, Etta imagines — or does she? — that he has been imbued with magical powers that will help her realize her dream of becoming an archaeologist. She imagines Troy will help her uncover artifacts left by the legendary swamp fox of the American Revolution, Francis Marion, or the grinding bowls and arrowheads of Pee Dee Indians, or even the treasure of plantation owners who fled the Yankees in the Civil War.

She had even named the horse for the archaeological find of her hero, Heinrich Schliemann. “Archaeology — the word itself seemed magical, and I had taken to pronouncing it slowly to myself, each of its five syllables distinctly, over and over until it became a song that could almost work like a spell and draw treasure from its hiding place,” she says. A find on her family’s “boring-looking fields and scrubby woods” would bring her fame and make her “special,” Etta believes, refocusing the attention of her parents on her, winning the approval of the popular girls at school, and making it unnecessary to apologize to Cleo for an unforgivable thing she said early in the summer.

Although Etta lives in an isolated country town, she is hardly cut off from the world. She knows that three civil rights workers have gone missing in Mississippi, that a preacher named Martin Luther King Jr. led a march on Washington, and that the old men who sit around the stores in town are worried about the changes coming in the culture of white dominance they have known all their lives.

In stark contrast to these conservative men is Miss Cass, the widow of an Indian man, who lives with a menagerie of animals — including a family of hedgehogs who patrol for bugs in her house at night — and bags of strange-smelling herbs in her ranch outside of town. Etta finds she can confide in Cass in ways she can’t with her standoffish mother or to Cleo, who complains about her “bad temper’ment.”

By the time the summer ends, Etta will find her dreams of fame realized, but in ways she never expected or wanted. She will meet a real archaeologist and learn that the treasures he seeks don’t often glitter and are not golden. She will know of wrenching loss that makes her feel like she’d “been pulled through a keyhole backward.” And at every turn she encounters Troy, his one good eye fixed on her, a cross between a guardian and a demon.

I devoured this book over several hours one evening. It would be appropriate young adult reading, but a mature reader will recognize nuances and appreciate the cultural references of the early 1960s, when a kid might spend a summer day reading a book, snacking on handfuls of Frosted Flakes and begging adults to take them somewhere, anywhere, they won’t be bored.

Bibliophile Kathryn Smith of Anderson regularly writes book reviews for the Independent Mail.

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