Though she survived the wreckage that took her parents lives one rainy summer night, that near fatal car accident left Gibby McGraw N(ot).Q(uite).R(ight).
While she spends her mornings working at Grandpa Charlie's Top o'the Morning Diner, her afternoons visiting the residents of Cray Ridge, Kentucky, running errands while Grandpa fishes, and gathering information to put in the stories she writes for Gibby's Gazette, Gibby also realizes everyone in town thinks she's diminished. Heck, even Sheriff LeRoy Johnson called her "dumber than anthracite" when he thought she was out of hearing range; but Gibby has a plan.
At the top of her list VERY IMPORTANT THINGS TO DO is to prove she is Quite Right and can take care of her self so so Mama can rest in peace and Charlie will get off her back and stop sending her to talk with Reverend Jack every time she says or does something "inappropriate." And the perfect plan fell into her lap when she found the man with plans to be the future state governor, Buster Malloy's murdered body, washed up on the shores of Browntown. Now all Gibby need do is employ the skills learned from THE IMPORTANCE OF PERCEPTION IN METICULOUS INVESTIGATION by Howard Redmond of New York City, New York to find Buster's killer and write the article for her paper.
What Gibby didn't count on was all hell breaking loose in the meantime.
I'm a huge fan of novels set in small towns; it's a prime opportunity for authors to utilize the family dynamic on a much larger scale and populate their world with plenty of quirky, compelling characters. Cray Ridge, Kentucky is lousy with those folks, and I mean that in the best way possible. Gibby's the protagonist and we experience the novel via her first person narrative, but all the characters were spectacular. Lesley Kagen had me laughing at Gibby's inappropriate outbursts and downright embarrassing questions until my sides hurt, and she had me stemming the flow of tears at certain points throughout while demonstrating just how much Gibby had lost due to the brain damage.
There's so much more regarding friend and familial connections, secrets and betrayals, but I fear going further into detail will lead to spoilers. All I can say is the roots of the characters' relationships run deep and when that happens, there is a great deal of twisting and rot that must eventually, be unraveled.
A second, but equally important aspect in this novel is it's social context. Ms. Kagen set LAND OF HUNDRED WONDERS is set in the post Civil Rights Movement south. As anyone who's ever spent time in the United States southern regions, there are places one can visit today in 2009, and still feel as though the events of that era never took place. Ms. Kagen does a superior job portraying the segregation that still existed in small places like Cray Ridge, not to mention the abuse of power employed by white law enforcement, and the simmering tensions between the former and those forced to live in the deteriorating conditions of Browntown.
We also see the toll Vietnam took on American soldiers sent overseas, in Gibby's friend Billy Brown Junior. The only son of the town's richest man, he spends the days since his return in the woods, often times believing he's still in the jungles of the Orient, with his own hideout shelters all over town.
LAND OF A HUNDRED WONDERS is a complex, hilarious, tender, slice-of-life, love story, murder mystery all rolled into one package. I *loved* reading this novel. Picking it up and opening the pages was like settling in for a visit with a group of close friends; and while the ending, like life, was somewhat bittersweet, it was an entirely appropriate send off for these characters I'd come to cherish.
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