Book Reviews
Spoiler Alert: Some reviews may give away parts of the story.

 

A touching novel of a child's journey from innocence
5 out of 5 stars, published on Amazon.com, November 20, 2010

By Richard Kenyon
Mr. Kenyon is a retired book editor of The Milwaukee Journal

"Even Sunflowers Cast Shadows" wonderfully captures several years of the lively and sometimes reckless childhood of the very charming and likeable Emma Starkey. Emma's small Kansas town of the 1920s may seem to us a quieter time, but Emmas's story is filled with all the joyful and sad, terrifying and tender moments we know can be a child's life.

Douglas Armstrong has found young Emma's voice, her engaging intelligence, curiosity and wit, and her abiding search for fairness in a world of troubled adults, racism and sexually coming-of-age children.

There are shadows cast in Emma's story, to be sure, but there is also much sweetness, humor and basic human goodness, told with a sense of honesty in a book that glides with a gentle rhythm.

 

"The kind of book that stays with you
   long after you’ve turned the last page"

     --Published on BookPleasures.com, April 18, 2011

By Lavanya Karthik
Ms. Karthik is a reviewer for BookPleasures.com

"Even sunflowers cast shadows," an elderly character cryptically says midway in this bittersweet tale of innocence lost. And indeed, the darkness lurking behind the seemingly perfect lives of her neighbors is what feisty little tomboy – and narrator of this tale – Emma Starkey must come to terms with, in this skillfully crafted bildungsroman by author Douglas Armstrong. Set in the 1920s in a small town in Kansas, the book captures life in that bygone era, the small pleasures and sorrows of its colorful characters, and the many heartbreaks that pave the road to that mysterious place called Growing Up.

For six year old Emma, life gravitates between running wild with her siblings, and trying to stay on the right side of her stern father , harried mother and a grandmother swiftly succumbing to dementia. She tries her best to be pious, obedient and charitable, but is invariably the one to giggle at a deathbed, think of dog poo in church or ruin her mother’s best curtains with an impulsive act of goodwill. "Do you suppose," she fearfully asks a friend, "if I hang onto my soul real tight, I can keep God from yanking it up to heaven and passing judgment on me after I die?"

When the intriguing and boisterous Drummond family moves in next door, Emma is delighted to find both a best friend and the exquisite pain of her first crush. But all is not what it seems with the Drummonds – secrets lurk behind their picture perfect lives and when Mr. Drummond abruptly abandons his family for another woman, their lives begin to unravel. Over the next four years, the lives of the Starkeys and the Drummonds grow intricately bound by friendship, rivalry and the burden of shared secrets, before a tragic death changes their lives forever.

Author Armstrong gifts his narrator with a rich and wonderful voice – she is precocious, knowing, angry and heartbreakingly naďve all at once, and reminded me of Scout Finch, the remarkable narrator of that American classic, "To Kill a Mockingbird." Through Emma's keen and curious eyes we view her tumultuous world, and watch her negotiate love, lust, sorrow, and heartbreak. Armstrong peoples this book with complex and flawed characters – even scheming little children! – yet writes them with an empathy that makes them hard to dislike.

Nor does he skirt around sensitive issues; little Emma encounters sexual predators, racism, and death, and takes her first steps toward sexual awareness. More significantly, she finds out that family can be fickle, cruel, and unfaithful. For Emma’s is a world teeming with unreliable adults – a taciturn and emotionally remote father, predatory neighbours, perverted postmen, racist townsmen, adulterors. The few grown ups she is drawn to – her aunt, a youthful class teacher – invariably abandon her. Closer to home, even as the Drummond’s teenaged daughter threatens to become the town scandal, Emma’s own sister Eileen blossoms into a manipulative siren and rival for the affections of dashing Rach Drummond.

"Sunflowers.." chronicles Emma’s painful coming of age with grace, poignancy and heart, and is the kind of book that stays with you long after you’ve turned the last page. Also worth noting is the arresting black and white image on the cover, designed by the author’s son, that beautifully captures the essence of its memorable heroine.

 

A Cornucopia of very good writing and storytelling
4 out of 5 stars, published on Amazon.com, February 23, 2011

By R. K. Miller
Mr. Miller is former book editor of The Milwaukee Journal

"Even Sunflowers Cast Shadows" tells of a society abiding by the inflexible proprieties that everyone in it has been raised in but that no one questions except the children, chiefly Our Heroine, Emma Faye Starkey, preschool age as the novel opens and close to junior high as it ends. As her next-door neighbor Margaret says, "You have to admit it, you keep hopping out of the frying pan into the fire."

Emma's Cornucopia, Kansas, in the 1920s is not that Palinesque small-town paradise where all the real Americans come from, good people who read the Good Book from Fri- til Monday, that's how their weekend goes. This is a novel, not a fantasy. Cornucopia is just a dusty little corner of the Midwest where mostly decent working-class people try to do the right thing and mostly succeed, but on the infrequent failures sometimes end up in ridiculous, seriocomic situations or flame out into godawful personal and domestic meltdowns. And when they're not doing things to themselves, fate is, in the form of illness that takes the life of a young child or of obsessions that take over the lives of grown men.

At one time or another as you read "Even Sunflowers Cast Shadows" you could plop Emma down into the Iowa of Ruth Suckow or the Ohio of Sherwood Anderson or the Prince Edward Island of Lucy Maud Montgomery and she'd be equally at home. In other words, Emma is a little girl of universal reality and, as such, a girl of many parts. She has comic-opera moments, as when she resolves to be a better person, which ends with her getting black shoe polish all over a "perfectly good bedspread"--love that touch, as if there were other, less perfect bedspreads for which black shoe polish would be all right--and the curtains. Which then leads to her setting the house on fire.

This is a novel about many things, but behind all those things is sex. But not, as they say, in a bad way. Rather, in a real-life way, where sex lurks to trip up us all, from, as they say, 6 to 106. In the several years covered by the book Emma develops an increasing sexual awareness, and the novel is blunt in describing how bluntly the mystery of sex occasionally confronts her. With sexual budding comes romance (or vice versa). For Emma the twain meet when the doomed older boy of her dreams rescues her from peril on the ice, though she is still at a stage in which she dreams of him as a protective white knight rather than as a lover.

More ominous, primeval sexuality lies in the dark corners. Not just Winesburg-style peeping toms, but so-called respectable family men who find themselves stirred by the innocent dancing and prancing of pre-teen girls.

And it's about friendship, too, and how and why it ends. Margaret Drummond, Emma's best friend, is probably the other character, out of many endearing and exasperating ones, you will most care about, especially after she becomes melancholic upon the breakup of her family life.

"The Gutch," Emma's teacher, Miss Gutchow, at first seems unbelievably overdrawn as a classroom tyrant, until you (and the town) learn the medical/mental reasons that had driven her to her state. Emma's father, Thad, a noticeably hard and sterile personality, was for me the least convincingly drawn.

Doug Armstrong's writing is fluid but controlled--and more grammatical than that of many another novelist. Imagery, metaphors, similes, and wisecracks are all well chosen, i.e., "That nursery she was toting around under her swimsuit filled it to stretching."

The dialogue and language are right-on: "Dang" or "ding-dang" crop up constantly; you and I may not talk that way, but I know my parents and aunts and uncles did--when they weren't using the stronger stuff--and they weren't even from Kansas. "Alls I'm saying," her brother John B. says in reaffirming an earlier assertion. It's a pitch-perfect capturing of American speech.

There are many moments of humor, both wry and dry--"You could see where Thad got his warmth," referring to Thad's father, who has none--and crude: Grandma Thaney's placing her false teeth into the dishwater to wash them with the dinner dishes. And just plain funny, as Emma gradually learns about the birds and the bees: "My God, even our cow did it?"

There are several perfectly observed scenes, such as that over the "Jim Crow" seats on a highway bus. This meticulously catches the "racism lite" of a state like Kansas of the 1920s. People weren't lynch-mad like the Deep South, but they weren't opposed to keeping Negroes in their place or burning down their houses when they thought they had stepped out of that place.

The bus scene then leads almost surreally to a loopy little fracas that you would like to see placed into the hands of an accomplished screwball comedy director. The immediate contrast of the serious with the sublime is laugh-making.

This novel is all of a piece. It knows where it wants to go and it knows how to get there. The final thirty pages or so build to a tense and exciting and, moreover, believable finish. And it ends as it began: with a punch in the mouth.

The crowning touch is that Emma purely hates liver and onions. Who can fail to like a girl so sensible beyond her years?


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