When I was in the second grade, my teacher read Old Yeller to the class. When she got to the end, she started crying and had to go get Mrs. Wilson to finish for her. From then on I felt smugly superior to my teacher. Don’t get me wrong. Ain’t nothing sadder than a dead dog, but get a hold of yourself woman. That was my attitude then.
I’m not really the crying type. Like Tate P. Ellerbee, the eleven-year-old protagonist of Dear Hank Williams by Kimberly Willis Holt. She explains this early on to her pen-pal, rising star Hank Williams, who sings on the “Louisiana Hayride” radio show in 1948.
Dear Hank Williams is a kids’ book that you can read in a day, but it’s got a lot going on. It’s a one-sided epistolary novel with an unreliable narrator (one suspects as soon as she explains that she and her little brother live with her great-aunt and uncle across the street from the cemetery in a town so small the train doesn’t stop is because her momma is away making a movie and her daddy is a National Geographic photographer).
It has some of the feeling of Because of Winn-Dixie, and most of the book deals with the everyday world of a little girl in the post-war South: hunting for “Reds” with her little brother, getting pestered by her little brother, watching her uncle’s romantic failures, her dreams of singing in the local talent show and someday owning a dog. You know Hank’s never going to write back, and the truth about each of her parents is slowly revealed, but the sadness of her situation is tempered by her own happiness as her singing improves and she, at last, gets a dog of her very own. (The very breed I begged for at her age!)
When I was in the fourth grade, I read Bridge to Terabithia, and when I got to the end, I had to go hide in the bathroom to cry.
At the end of Dear Hank Williams, Holt hits you with a sucker punch worthy of Bridge to Terabithia. Or maybe The Sixth Sense, where you realize you weren’t reading the book you thought were and the clues were all there and the only reason you didn’t notice is because – how could an author do this to you?!
Jesus Grandpa why did you read me this thing?!
I only saw it coming a page or two ahead and those two pages felt like hitting the brakes when you know it’s too late to avoid the crash. I teared up in advance but then read the page twice just in case I was wrong. How could an author do that to an imaginary little girl 70 years ago and the people who would read about her?
Of course my kids finished their game and came into the room just as I read the fateful twist. They brought me chocolate and piled baby dolls in my lap, confused and a little frightened to see me crying over a book.
And now it’s hours later and my kids are in bed. And I’m supposed to be working but I can’t concentrate because an imaginary little girl in Louisiana in 1949 keeps making me cry.