Well, life got in the way a bit. As in I got my Haunted revision letter and needed to go into the writing cave for awhile to figure things out. But I've crawled out and now and so it's time for my review of Jen Dutton's Stranded which comes out June 8th, 2010 from HarperTeen and is a book you will absolutely need to read!
Kelly Louise Sorenson is darkly funny, smart, and, as JT Dutton’s second YA novel, STRANDED begins, stuck in Heaven, Iowa, where she’s come with her mother from the more urban – well, relatively speaking – atmosphere of Des Moines. Kelly’s also got a secret. Or rather, her cousin Natalie does. It’s Natalie who’s given birth to the baby found dead and abandoned in the cornfields of Heaven. Only Natalie’s pretending it hasn’t happened. So is Kelly Louise’s nana – she of the cleaning obsessions and the reminders that “Clothes should be hung, not flung.” Heaven, Iowa is not paradise and Kelly Louise is no ordinary girl. The mixture is a potent one. The longer Natalie refuses to admit the truth, the crazier things become for Kelly Louise – named after sexpot Tina Louise – the actress who played Ginger on Gilligan’s Island. Kelly finds herself adrift in a world of church goers and hypocrites, believers and sinners. As she tells us, “What if – I thought a little more loudly – I did what Mom asked and pretended the incident hadn’t happened? Do baby abandoners get do-overs? I offered my soul to encourage God to say yes. I wasn’t doing anything with it. God as usual, said nothing.”
Enter Kenny Stockhausen – “dark but not handsome and far too trigger-happy.” The Stockhausen’s live next door amid “unmowed lawn and rusting cars” and Kelly Louise wonders if they “were messy or just practicing environmental restraint.” Kelly’s feelings about Kenny are complicated – attraction and annoyance and, when she comes to realize that he may also be keeping Natalie’s secret, grow more complicated still.
As with most characters in JT Dutton’s novels, Kenny is not easily defined. Kenny is raw, rude and tightly coiled. But there’s a tender confused core under there, a streak of decency even during an ill-fated scene in his under-filled water bed where he helps Kelly Louise lose her virtue as she finds that keeping Natalie’s secret is taking its toll. “But then again, how could Kenny have perceived the real me when I hadn’t exactly locked that one down myself?” Kenny may or may not be helping his meth-dealing uncle. Kenny may or may not have helped Natalie give birth to Baby Grace in the Iowa cornfields. But unlike most of the denizens of Heaven, Kenny is real.
Dutton’s novel alternately amuses, horrifies and fascinates. Kelly Louise is a gem of a narrator – both self –aware and naïve at the same time. My heart ached for her as often as I laughed aloud at her descriptions. Heaven, Iowa, is certainly not heaven at all. Kenny is definitely not boyfriend material. Natalie is not the virgin princess she pretends to be. Nana is not quite as crazy as she seems. Okay, maybe she is, but I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt here. Plus there’s Dutton’s take on middle America - equal parts wasteland of Croc-wearing true believers and simultaneously lost and steady-hearted souls such as Mr. Gruber, the principal of Heaven’s Carrie Nation High (gotta love Dutton’s naming skills) and the man to whom Kellie Louise finally trusts her secret.
I applaud Jen Dutton’s STRANDED for its humorous yet unblinking glimpse into the secret lives of imperfect people. Kelly Louise – part Margaret Mead anthropologist detached observer of those who name their school mascot the Fighting Soybean and part confused girl in search of love and acceptance – leads us into their world, stranding us all for awhile and making us contemplate the nature of good, evil, and life itself.
Til next time... and if you haven't read my interview with Jen, two posts back, please do!