Let me preface this commentary by stating that I love Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. There is a reason Miss Lee’s only novel leads all others in voting for the Best Novel of the 20th Century on Goodreads.com. It speaks to readers. It resonates with them. Scout’s voice rings true, and Atticus Finch is the ideal Southern gentleman father. That said, Sheila Turnage’s debut novel could be sub-titled To Kill a Mockingbird for Pre-teens. Before you cry, “Sacrilege!” let me explain. Plop Miss Jean Louise Finch in today’s world, substitute an amnesiac with military bearing and a slightly kooky cook for Atticus and Calpurnia, and – VOILA! – you have Mo LeBeau, “rising sixth-grader.” Mo is what Scout would be without the tempering effects of her wise, gentle father. Mo’s voice establishes the setting and marks the tone from the first paragraph, just as Scout’s does. The more I read, the more firmly the two girls entwined in my mind.
Mo came to Tupelo Landing, North Carolina, as a newborn infant swept in on the wreckage of a hurricane. Her parent figures (there appears to be nothing legal in this arrangement) are The Colonel, a man with no memory of his past before he wrecked his car in that same hurricane and awoke to find himself clutching a newborn baby whom he christened Moses, not realizing at the time that the infant was a girl, and Miss Lana, the wig-wearing, driving impaired cook at the town’s only cafe. The cafe is the heart of the tiny town, and readers quickly get to know all its inhabitants, from the cantankerous Mr. Jesse (think Bob Ewell in TKAM) to Mo’s best friend Dale, the small, often-bruised son of an abusive drunkard father (“I used to think Dale was clumsy. Then I realized he only got clumsy when Mr. Macon got drunk.”) and more, including Anna Celeste Simpson, Mo’s “Sworn Enemy for Life.”
Mo’s origin is a nagging mystery that motivates much of her behavior, including a large part of her antagonism for Anna Celeste, who, “…behind my back, says I’m a throw-away kid, with no true place to call home. So far, nobody’s had the guts to say it to my face, but I hear whispers the way a knife-thrower’s assistant hears knives.” She writes diary entries to her “upstream mother” and drops messages in bottles hoping that one day her unknown mother will find one and ultimately find her. This “throw away” aversion leads to one of the most moving passages in the book when her best friend Dale finally lets his temper explode, blasting Mo with the truth that her mother threw her away only once, while others are thrown away time and time again by the uncaring people in their lives.
Turnage’s colorful language is peppered with Southern phrases and idioms that some may think condescending and slyly mocking of the backwater people who occupy her pages. Rather, it is an authentic homage to the rural South from a lifelong resident of eastern North Carolina. Teachers will find countless excerpts illustrating the six traits of writing, especially voice and word choice, in Mo’s story. Add racing, murder and kidnapping into this mix, and you have a novel that is sure to be a winner with intermediate-age readers and the adults who read with them.