I first read and reviewed Deborah Wiles' Countdown in 2010. I loved, loved, loved this documentary novel. If you love historical fiction, or, if you love coming of age stories, you should consider reading this one. It's a great read.
1962. October 1962. The world waits. Will there be war? Can the situation in Cuba be resolved peaceably? Or is this the beginning of the end?
Franny Chapman is the heroine of Countdown. She's eleven. She feels like she's invisible. She feels persecuted. Her sister assures her these feelings are completely normal. Franny herself isn't too sure. Franny struggles with issues big and small in this novel. Of course, there is the shared experience of worrying about the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Franny knows that everyone--adults and kids alike--is worried about this.) But of a more personal nature, Franny is struggling with several things. First, her forever-best-friend, Margie, is acting strange, different. Franny wonders if the two will be able to stay friends. It's more than just drifting apart. Margie seems to suddenly hate her. Second, Franny is worried about Uncle Otts (is he her great-uncle?). He's getting older. His mind isn't always great at distinguishing between past and present. The threat of war isn't helping matters any. He has his own way of reacting to threats and dangers. And to Franny, those ways are just EMBARRASSING, extremely embarrassing. Third, Franny finds herself in love with the boy next door. (His name is Chris. Many girls find themselves in love with Chris).
Readers see Franny at home, at school, at play. I loved meeting Franny and her family. I loved how the novel was put into context through the format itself. This documentary novel is packed with images, photographs, quotes, lyrics. (Everything from photographs of JFK and other world leaders, other politicians, other leaders to Miss America, to images from the Civil Rights movement, to a cover of a Nancy Drew novel.) So while Countdown is a novel, it also serves as a scrapbook. (You can see some of what the book looks like on the author's blog.) I think this one does a good job of capturing a time, a place in American history. It is rich in detail. (For example, I loved hearing about the wonder, the novelty of McDonald's hamburgers--for Franny and her family.)
Jo Ellen has the world's best 45-rpm record collection. Since I can remember, I've sprawled across her big bed when she's in her room doing homework or talking on the phone to her girlfriends, and Jo Ellen has let me play her records, as long as I don't get fingerprints on them or let the needle scratch them. I'm not allowed to touch her albums, but the 45s she lets me rifle through to my heart's content.
I've memorized the geography of every one of those records. "Johnny Angel" has a yellow label, "Twistin' the Night Away" has a tiny scratch at the beginning edge, and "Runaway," which is my current favorite, by my favorite singer, Del Shannon, has a heart drawn on the label--by me. Jo Ellen doesn't know this yet. (75-76)
My first concrete remembrance of church is going to revival with Miss Mattie in Halleluia, Mississippi. I like revival. It's entertaining. I know almost every hymn in the Methodist hymnal by heart, every verse, and I can play most of them on the piano.
Revival lasts two weeks, so we go every night to church, and every night there is tarnation preaching and seventeen verses of "Just As I Am," until someone walks up to the altar to be saved.
Trouble is, Halleluia is a small town, and most everybody in church has already been saved. So unless somebody new shows up, or an older kid is pushed into the aisle by his mother, we just sing and sing that hymn, until my grandmother stands up and ambles in her square shoes up the aisle with a half-exasperated look on her face, and gets saved once again. Mostly she is saving all of us, and she knows we know it. (130)
"Nobody's the favorite, Franny," she says. "Of course you're important. Just because they don't broadcast it--"
"You're not around enough to notice," I interrupt, standing up straight. "You're all grown up, you're in college--you have loads of friends--you even have new friends! You can do whatever you want."
"That's certainly not true," says Jo Ellen.
I sigh. "I just want to skip all these years in between and go off to college like you, only I want to live in the dorms like Lannie does."
"This, too, shall pass. You don't know how lucky you are, Franny. You go to a good school, your dad's an officer in the military, you eat, shop, play wherever you choose, you can go to any college you want when you grow up. You've got it made. You're privileged."
I toss the tissue in the trash. "I'm invisible around here. I could disappear for days and nobody would miss me."
Now it's Jo Ellen's turn to sigh. "Franny, you're eleven. That's the problem in a nutshell." She pulls an envelope out of her purse. "Everybody feels persecuted when they're eleven. It will pass." (85)
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews