Jo Ann Beard’s novel, In Zanesville, is an enjoyable and poignant read. The story follows the exploits of an unnamed narrator, who is a self-pronounced sidekick, and her best friend Felicia. As the girls traverse the streets and hallways of Zanesville, Illinois, we, the readers, get a look at this world through the girls’ fourteen year old eyes. It’s a world where teens strive for adulthood, while adults seek refuge in alcohol, work, discontent, and even in death. Yet our narrator’s obsession remains one of not bringing attention on herself.
In Zanesville begins with a fire. The young narrator and her friend, Felicia, are babysitting the six unmanageable children of two bikers. This is the summer before they enter high school, where the world they’ve come to be comfortable in begins to change. Jo Ann Beard navigates the halls of an anywhere American high school of the seventies with skill and humor. The young characters are thrust from the content anonymous identities of those existing in the background to the forefront with a jarring push. Along with the social upheavals prevalent in high school, both girls begin to see and comprehend the world around them with less naiveté. Boys become something other than strange beings that make strange noises. As she watches Felicia bloom, the narrator questions a person’s ability to be a sidekick without a side. Other observations begin to form in the young narrator’s conception of the world around her, such as her father’s increasing reliance on alcohol to get him through his days. She seems shocked once she realizes that her mother’s growing discontent with the family existence is interrelated with her father’s methodical self-destruction.
Jo Ann Beard is a master of the narrative story. Her writing flows seamlessly between light hearted, tense, awkward, and heart wrenching scenes with a fluidity that keeps the reader in the moment of the story. Beard brings the harsh realities of young adulthood into clear focus through her sometimes bittersweet and often outright hilarious story telling.
I found myself relating too well with the young narrator of In Zanesville. She was funny and sassy and smart and forever trying to hide behind others, yet her vulnerability shines through her awkwardness for being the class ‘late bloomer’. Despite trying, she never fully fits into her own life.
This coming of age tale is not just a nostalgic look backwards; it is fraught with the difficulties of change throughout life. In Zanesville shows the reader that ‘yes’ life is problematic, but mixed throughout there are also episodes of friendship, love, and hilarity. I thoroughly enjoyed In Zanesville from the fire on the first page to its satisfying conclusion.
Nina Longfield is a writer living in Oregon’s fertile wine country. When she is not reading or writing in her spare time, Nina enjoys hiking in the hills surrounding her cabin.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Little, Brown and Company. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.