Louis Bayard may be familiar to fans of his adult novels, including Roosevelt's Beast, or from his deliciously entertaining reviews of “Downton Abbey” for The New York Times. Now he brings his prodigious talents to a young adult novel set in 1934, Depression-era Virginia. The protagonist of Lucky Strikes is a spirited, gutsy 14-year old named Amelia, a dedicated older sister and gas station proprietor who can “fill a radiator faster than anyone this side of the Blue Ridge.”
As the story begins, Melia has just buried her mama. Literally. During her mother’s illness, Melia took to visiting her favorite spot on a nearby hill, and soon began taking a shovel there. By the time Mama passed on, Melia, along with her younger brother and sister, Earle and Janey, simply drive the truck on over and lower Mama into the waiting grave. When Janey wonders what they’ll do next, Melia’s thought that out as well. Melia will carry on running Brenda’s Oasis as best she can—fixing cars, pumping gas for tired truckers coming off Highway 55 and, most of all, trying to stay ahead of their bills.
It won’t be easy. And Melia also knows it won’t be long before the vultures start circling. First, there’s the evil Harley Blevins (surely the most villainous gas station owner in all of literature), who won’t be satisfied unless he eats up the station (and Melia, too). The only good thing about Blevins is his nephew, Dudley, whom Melia can’t help noticing. Next, there are the do-gooders, ready to split the siblings up and put them in dreaded “Fos. Ter. Care.”
Melia simply won’t have that. So when a vagrant with a dubious past falls off a flatbed truck carrying coal, Melia hatches a plan to turn Mr. Hiram Watts into her long-lost father.
While the violent steps Blevins takes to try to destroy Melia’s gas station (and the regrettable and unnecessary inclusion of a pejorative Native-American term) makes it best suited to older teen readers, Lucky Strikes is a memorable, warmhearted story of family and redemption with an engaging, unforgettable heroine.
Deborah Hopkinson lives near Portland, Oregon. Her most recent book for young readers is A Bandit's Tale.