There’s a lot to love about this book, but I may be prejudiced: it features a heroine who is a librarian and who loves reading so much that she eschews everything else in real life. Not that I can relate. Ahem.
Anyway, Wonderland Creek by Lynn Austin is a sweet, funny story set during the height of the Depression. It opens with Alice Ripley, a young librarian in small-town Illinois, getting dumped by her funeral director fiancé when he catches her reading during a particularly boring funeral. (In her defense, the deceased was a great library patron, and she felt it was a fitting tribute.) Then, due to budget cuts, the library has to let go of the most junior member of the staff – who is, of course, Alice. While she would prefer to view this as an opportunity for more reading time, her preacher father tells her she needs to do something. She decides to make good on her promise to Leslie MacDougal, a librarian in a poor Kentucky town. But instead of shipping the books she has collected, she hitches a ride with her boozy aunt and uncle (on their way to White Sulphur Springs for the water cure) to deliver the books in person.
Can you guess if things go as planned? Of course you can, and of course they don’t. She arrives in Appalachia to a few startling discoveries: there are no hotels in town, there are no toilets either, and Leslie MacDougal is not a woman at all, but a gruff mountain man. He receives her donations with pleasure – he loves books, after all – but receives her presence a little less favorably.
You see, Leslie “Mack” MacDougal is something of a rabble rouser. He is from the tiny town of Acorn, Kentucky (although Alice wouldn’t deign to call it a town), and when he went away to college he got some funny ideas about how the coal mine operators were treating its workers. So he started writing. Then, the day after Alice arrives, somebody shoots him.
Alice reluctantly (very reluctantly) stays on to take care of Mack and Lillie, the ex-slave who raised Mack when his parents died. Lillie has incredible knowledge of natural healing, although her own health seems to decline dangerously whenever Alice threatens to leave.
On the surface, this book is terrible! These people are horrible! Alice is spoiled and whiny; Lillie and Mack are manipulative and selfish. But then…they’re all sort of not. They all have traits that redeem them, and Austin manages this so subtly that you hardly know you are forgiving their flaws. Sure, Mack tricks Alice into staying, but then he gets shot and he really does need her help. And he loves books. (I might be the target audience for this book…just a little.) Lillie is probably the trickiest of all, but she’s so smart (without falling into stereotype – which I very much appreciated), and besides, she’s 100 years old and lived through a hundred lifetimes of heartache.
Yes, Alice is a brat, but she loves books (like all good people!), and soon she learns to love sharing books with the very appreciative (and largely illiterate) people of Acorn. And as she grows from abject horror (they don’t even have electricity) to an appreciation of a people who do for themselves, she doesn’t lose her sassy, opinionated tone. At the end of the book, she is still the same Alice, even though she has grown and changed from her experience.
I don’t know much about Lynn Austin (although I will get a chance to learn at the West Virginia Book Festival in October), and I don’t think she has a connection to Appalachia. Still, she writes with a real appreciation for the culture and history. She manages to include rural packhorse librarians, moonshine, music, storytelling, and the Mine Wars in a way that feels completely natural to the story. She has the same subtle touch with the religious elements of the story – Alice gains a greater appreciation for the mysterious works of God, but there’s no over-the-top-Pollyanna conversion scene.
In short (yeah right), this book is a lot of fun. If you’ve never read an inspirational book before, but you like lighter women’s fiction with a strong heroine’s point of view, this book is for you. And if you are a reader of inspirational fiction, the woman on the cover staring off into the distance will clue you in to what’s inside: a sweet story about a woman whose life changes as she finds herself.