It’s 1948, and 11-year-old Tate P. Ellerbee’s teacher wants each of her students to choose a pen pal, hoping that “new worlds will unfold in front of you, and you’ll see your own world through fresh eyes.” Tate decides to write to rising country singer Hank Williams. She pours her heart out to her idol in letter after letter, even though he sends her fan photos but never writes back.
At first, Tate’s life in the tiny town of Rippling Creek, Louisiana, seems fairly ordinary. She spends her days with her Aunt Patty Cake, Uncle Jolly and her annoying younger brother nicknamed Frog. But readers gradually learn Tate’s deepest secrets, such as the fact that her father really isn’t a globe-trotting photographer and her mother isn’t a movie star.
Fans of Kimberly Willis Holt’s award-winning When Zachary Beaver Came to Town will welcome another sensitive portrayal of a child trying to find her place as she longs for absent parents. The rich Louisiana culture shines through, as do the daily effects of World War II and a community filled with cultural fears of African Americans, the Japanese and Communists. (The historical aspects are nicely addressed in an afterword.)
As we learn our letter-writing heroine’s greatest secret of all, this seemingly gentle novel about a “simpler” time and place is packed with plenty of punch, all deftly handled by a writer who writes like Hank Williams sang—with heart and understanding.