I’ve already added the two other Akashic books by Nina Revoyr to my tbr. This should tell you something about my fondness for this novel. Wingshooters is a coming of age novel. And like many coming of age tales, it’s about being forced to grow up too quickly, having adulthood forced upon you before you’re ready. It’s about the inner conflict over the great love and respect that you feel for someone – but someone who may be terribly flawed. It’s about coming to terms with those contradictions, and coming through it with a renewed love. It’s about the devastating violence of racial hatred that can act as a cancer on a small community. It’s about growing up being “the other”, being different from the communal norms, and the fear and hate this can inspire. It’s about child abuse and family dynamics. It’s about a woman’s dawning self-awareness.
It’s about nine year old Michelle LeBeau, the only child of an American father and a Japanese mother. It takes place in 1974, with all the social changes still being processed in this back-water from the previous decade. Michelle (or Mikey as she is more often called) has long since been abandoned by her mother, and her father has more or less dumped her into the care of her grandfather (Charlie LeBeau) and grandmother (Helen). Michelle is fluent in Japanese and English, but being dumped in a small rural Wisconsin town, there is no requirement for Japanese. In fact, there is little tolerance for anyone “that doesn’t belong”, and a young bi-racial child, certainly doesn’t ‘belong’. This attitude would include Charlie, but the irony is that he takes to her immediately, and (along with her dog) they are soon fast friends and companions. Charlie would do anything for Michelle, and later will prove it.
Deerhorn (a fictional town, as far as I can tell) is an insular community in Wisconsin that wants to hold on to the way things are, and tolerates outsiders only up to a point – if they are white. If they are not, then there are other barriers that separates them from belonging. I spent a summer in a small community in Rhinelander, Wisconsin one summer, a little before the time period of Revoyr’s novel. Located outside of Rhinelander there exists a Camp Deerhorn, a summer camp for boys. Coincidence maybe.
Michelle sees the ugly side of racism, constantly being harassed by her school mates because of her mixed heritage. Her crime is to be different. Into this mix, come a black, professional couple, and the hateful racism really gets down and dirty. The lengths that some of the towns resident go to cause trouble for the couple (the Garretts, he a substitute school teacher, she a doctor at a free health clinic) are heinous, open and disturbing. And Charlie is not removed from these sentiments. His wife, a dutiful spouse, and a ‘silent’ partner all these years is moved to a higher level of consciousness because of the inexorable course of events. When she broaches disagreement with her husband, Michelle (the narrator, subject, and confessor) writes
…I didn’t know her as well as I thought. What else did she have her own mind about? How else did she diverge from her husband? And what had it cost her all of these years to be his silent wife, his constant supporter, with no opinions of her own; no way to make a space that was separate from him?
The story plays itself out to a tense conclusion, and an aftermath. Revoyr is a great storyteller (based on this one novel), and she tells this one with compassion, insight, and tenderness. I admit, I cried several times, but when swept away by a film or a novel, I can be quick to tears. This one started slow for me, but it swept me in very quickly, and I was hooked. Revoyr writes in a clear and concise manner, that belies her firm grasp of complex issues, and where she wants to take them in service to her story. With only minor instances of heavy handedness, this is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. I look forward to going back to her earlier work.