Book Review: The Education of Nancy Adams, a novel by Larry Baker

During Lent, I have given up video games and have been reading a lot more to pass the time. Fortunately, I have been keeping up with some good company– my friends who write blogs, people who want Harry Chapin elected to the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, colleagues and Deering friends, political opponents and debaters, and a new friend, a writer — Larry Baker.

I met Baker online at the “Elect Harry Chapin” Facebook Page and he had said some really nice things about my writing, so I started reading his.This is the second book I have read by him and he knows what I thought of “A Good Man” (3 1/2 out of 5 stars, if I actually had such a scale). “A Good Man” was a dark book, with likeable characters, set in the South, with a few Harry Chapin references. It was good book, as I said, but –as someone prone to depression and one who hates bad theology ruining people’s lives — I’d have to say it was a dark book, with stylistic references to William Stryon not far off the mark. Still, I could appreciate his writing and thought to myself, “How does a guy come up with a story like this?” I still don’t know. I’m aware that some writers let the story go where it wants, as though they are taking dictation. I know others who fine-craft every detail, like the director of a good visual movie. The movie may be boring, but the visuals tell you it was directed by a professional director and an artist and would never have come to into being without that vision. I don’t know Larry enough to know which end of the spectrum he writes from, but I do like the new book because of what it does and what it doesn’t do. In addition there are some professional things that he does as a writer that explain why he gets paid for it and I don’t. As someone who likes a good story, isn’t all that into flash, and is fascinated by the craft of writing itself, the book works very well for me.

Let’s start with the “professional writer” stuff. Larry writes this book from the viewpoint of his main character — a woman. As I read the book, it occurred to me that I would never write as a woman because I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman. It’s either a failure of imagination on my part, or a show of imagination on his part. There are no sex scenes, so at least he doesn’t go that far into claiming experience he can’t have, but he knows what women do and he knows how women act in the world and the story is believable because of that. The women in this book are diverse. Some are tender, some are distant, some are conservative, some are liberal, but none of them takes a straight path. They do odd things at odd moments, for deep reasons that Baker explains. There are great shocks in the book, curveballs you don’t see coming, and a great number of them. In Larry’s world, though, there are no ditzes, no undeveloped characters, no shadows of whole people, no sex kittens, no glamorous people, only the type of women you’d actually meet in real life. A reader may not like a character or two — or ten — but that’s because you wouldn’t like them in real life, either. In this sense, Larry is like Harry: they both have a flare for understanding, describing, and telling the stories of the average person in the midst of real life. Sometimes they make moral choices when confronted with reality, sometimes they don’t, but they are willing to face themselves and make a choice, just as Harry’s characters were willing to, just as people in real life do every day.  These people swim in the same environment that we do, are as affected by it as we are, don’t always know why they are being pulled this way or that by and make choices due to what they know. It’s the best they can do and it’s the best most of us could do in whatever circumstances life throws at us.

This book, if it were a movie, would have no action scenes, would not have characters with great powers and require no CGI effects or Dolby Stereo Surround Sound. No buildings or animals would be destroyed, and you wouldn’t have to “come back down to earth” after seeing it. This book, if it were a movie, would require genuine actors who can portray the subtle nuances a character requires. This is a subtle book, a character driven book, rather than plot-driven “BIG” book. It’s about the life that people actually recognize — neither bigger than nor smaller than it.

This is not to say that there aren’t underpinning of larger issues. There are, as the story is set vaguely after the Anita Hill hearings when we starting to recognize abuse, power, and sexism, but this is not a book about Hill. It’s not set in Washington, and it’s not “a political thriller!”. It’s about politics at the local level. It’s about politics in the workplace. It’s about politics in life and how we negotiate those things that happen in the rest of the world. Vietnam colors things for these characters, but the book isn’t about Vietnam. Gender roles color things for the characters, but the book isn’t limited to gender or power or any particular -ism. Guns are involved — from the first paragraph to the last — but the book is decidedly not about guns. These things are all there, but It’s not about them. The book is about people about how people deal with the spin cycle that is real life at times. It’s interesting to see what colors the socks come out metaphorically. Nancy goes through chaos and comes out the other end, as most of us do at times.

Nancy Adams, the title character, grows and matures, yes, but she also becomes subtly younger as she grows up. Her life  is balanced in the midst of chaos around her, or becomes more so, as the book unfurls her. She doesn’t exactly know what hit her, because it’s not one big thing that affected her. It’s several little things and a few moderate to major things . Her character is like the child you only see once a year — they have grown dramatically in a year, but they only know it when the measurements are taken and compared to last time.

Adams, like all of the other characters in the book, are totally original. I have never seen them elsewhere in books or movies (with the exception of the inspirational-teacher-comes-to-town-and-brings-angst-and-ultimately-success movies). But if Baker starts her character there, he doesn’t finish there. This book is about how she changes the students, but more about how they — and the adults in their lives — change her. It’s about how she comes to like her life. Dell, the coach, is unlike others in other books. Jerry, his assistant coach is the same way. The men here like women and want them to succeed — not so much because they “got in touch with their feminine side”, but because they are men of honorable intentions.

Baker’s take on how we got here today politically is explained by the rise of Betsy, a side character who develops her own life by the end of the book, and makes our heroine define herself as well.  Agnes is a faithful African-American woman who goes to the Catholic Church because it’s on her way home. There are no caricatures in this book as there really are none in the life that I see every day. People are what they are because of where they started and what happens to them. They become something different as life happens.

It is a good story, with good characters, and good development — just like our lives and the lives of people around us. I highly recommend it.

Peace,

 

John

 

(Oh, By the way… I get no commission or royalties or other form of payment for this. I just like the book.)

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