Review by Jon C. Stott.
Near the end of Sharon Kennedy’s The SideRoad Kids: Tales from Chippewa County, one of the characters muses: “It’s hard being 12. It’s like we’re in between.” Kate, who is in sixth grade, realizes that when the school year ends, an important stage in their lives will have ended. Next year, she and the other neighborhood kids will be in seventh grade in a new school. The three months of summer that will soon begin will be an “in between time.”
That time is covered in The SideRoad Kids Book 2: A Summer of Discovery. The book is, in a way, a “what I did on my summer vacation” collection. The 28 stories, told by ten kids and one adult, are set in a rural area of Michigan’s eastern Upper Peninsula. During the long, hot days of their vacation, the kids dutifully perform such chores as milking, collecting eggs, and plowing fields. There are accounts of petty quarrels among friends, early adolescent crushes, building a tree house, roasting hot dogs over an evening campfire, trips to the drive-in, fishing excursions along the river, and lots of chocolate cake and cookies snacks, washed down with glasses of milk (often fresh from the udder).
But the kids often engage in serious conversations – questions are asked about God and death. And even more significant, they learn the often heartbreaking stories about their parents and grandparents. Although most of the scenes are set in the agricultural rural “SideRoad,” the summer is not a pastoral idyll for many of the kids. Flint, whose father has abandoned the family and whose mother has become an alcoholic, discovers why Uncle Leo, to whose farm he is sent during the summer, is so angry and moody. Shirley, whose older sister died of leukemia and who had another sister who died at birth, struggles to love her mother, who has descended into deep depression. The cocky, almost arrogant attitude of Sam, a newcomer to the SideRoad who is four years older than the others and has “octopus hands” at the drive-in, is better understood with the discovery that he and his mother were the only members of their family to survive the Holocaust.
There is hope and love. Katie learns that Jewel Red Nails, the neighborhood eccentric, still loves her childhood sweetheart, Katie’s now-widowed grandfather. Kate is fond of Johnny, whose mother has abandoned his family. Flint is sweet on a girl named “Candy.” Blew, an orphan, has deep feelings for Daisy, who has a physical disability. Although the marriages of many of their parents are broken or all but, the kids show a tenderness that suggests they may find happiness their mothers and fathers didn’t.
Although the stories are set in 1958, The SideRoad Kids Book Two isn’t a nostalgic look into the past. Blew, who has just discovered the truth of his parentage, philosophizes: “Nobody knows what’s in the future. We only know what’s here now.” The episodes are about the moments of discovery as they happened. The events are presented by first-person narrators, and, except for the narrators’ occasional remembrances of past events, all but four are in the present tense. The reader feels the immediacy of each character’s moments of discovery and the joy, sadness, love, and anger these bring. This is what the “in between time,” the last childhood summer for the SideRoad kids is like. This is now.
Sharon Kennedy displays her writing talents at their best in this book. A sense of place is felt in each story – the rural landscape and the lives of the people who interact along the SideRoad. There is some humor, but more importantly, there is a deep understanding and sympathy for the characters she brings to life on the pages. Being a kid can be fun, but it can also be tragic.
The author has said that there will be a third book in the series, tracing the adult lives of some of the characters who have made such profound discoveries in their summer of being “in between.” I will look forward to its publication. I thought the first SideRoad book was really good; the second one is even better. When I reread the book for this review, I discovered even more wonderful things about the young narrators. While I’m waiting for Book Three, I’m going to reread The SideRoad Kids: A Summer of Discovery. I’m sure there is even more for me to discover.
The SideRoad Kids Book 2: A Summer of Discovery, by Sharon Kennedy (Ann Arbor, MI: Modern History Press, 2023)
Review — Jon C. Stott