What initially drew me to review “ Forsaking Mimosa” was the combination of Mississippi author and Mississippi publisher. Unlike my friend, our LEGENDS editor, I'd not taken previous note of Dogwood Press -- nor Valerie Winn's authorship -- nor Joe Lee's editor/publisher role. I'm a home cooking kind of guy who believes local writers, booksellers and publishers are vital to our sense of community. Or if you prefer, are critical to our "creative economy."
So when I received Valerie Winn's “ Forsaking Mimosa” and realized I'd agreed to review a coming-of-age yarn set in the 1930s, I was intimidated. After a bit of skimming and then letting it rest, I found myself increasingly drawn back to my rural South of that time. I even began looking at those family albums from the 1920s and 1930s. I may have even heard echos of that train running one door and a vacant lot from our citrus grove-surrounded home.
The more I skimmed “ Forsaking Mimosa” the more appealing Winn's home cooking became deserving of consideration beyond my level of literary understanding. My friends who teach literature know I'm a "story" reader more than a reviewer. Plus escape fiction is my regular reading fare. Harry Bosch, Elvis Cole, Jane Whitefield, Joe Pike, Myron Bolitar, Marion Ford. You get the idea; no, make that the "action."
For the record, I'm a representative of Malcom Gladwell's "most favored generation of the previous century." That is, I was born in 1935, a deep demographic trough, with birth rates clearly advantaging white males. My mother, a 1921 graduate of Florida State College for Women, was a primary school teacher. My dad's first job was water boy for a crew laying track to serve a phosphate mining operation. His boss was my grandfather, the straw boss on the trackage construction. My parents would have connected with the Brinkmann family on every day save Sunday.
However, for reasons never clear my schoolmarm mother and my classical poetry-quoting father chose to not teach me reading. But they did insure there were print materials ranging from Hurlbut's Story of the Bible to Reader's Digest to the Book of Knowledge. Yep, as the firstborn of 35-year-old parents, I didn't need to read. They read to me when they were not busy telling me stories or reciting Tennyson or Longfellow or scripture.
And, of course, Sally and I share a divided household. She is an engaged reader; I'm a skimmer. She's an English teacher. I'm a very eclectic social scientist. She's focused and I'm ADD. I maintain the Amazon account; she stimulates the Barnes and Noble account. Alas, she's the Nook; I'm the Fire. She reads real fiction. I, on the other hand, keep all of John D McDonald's adventures of Travis McGee on my Fire. However, we do share membership in the Jack Reacher fan club. So much for serious, engaged reading! Clearly not a reviewer's credentials.
Yet the more I wandered around Mimosa my sense of connection with the Brinkmann family's world deepened. Simultaneous with this, my sense of inadequacy as a reviewer grew. On one level I continue to be engaged with this work and on another my sense of intimidation grows. In the end Ms. Winn won. And you gentle reader, may have lost. I still doubt I can do her work justice.
However, her tale of young Max Brinkman's transitions from Mimosa townie to depression era farmstead adolescent while simultaneously "transferring" from a community-based Catholic school to a rural all-girl boarding school as a "day student," to "forsaking" Mimosa for boot camp and beyond, captured my imagination in unexpected ways. Of course, St. Agnes Academy is managed and run---and I do mean run--by a cadre of nuns. Max and his younger brothers are the only male students enrolled.
The disciplined order of the Academy may require a few extra degrees of "willing suspension of disbelief" from Winn's younger readers. For some of us oldsters this structure, discipline and order will be as familiar as the spiders in the outhouse. Yet by giving her readers glimpses of the diversity of personalities behind the cloth of the Holy habit worn by Max's teachers, Winn avoids stereotyping the Sisters of Saint Agnes Academy. It's true: Discipline and diversity.
I think I've known a few depression era families like the Brinkmanns. This includes the children as well as the parents, Nora and Josef. Viewed through the children's eyes, their commitment to one another, to their faith traditions and to their family, is clearly drawn. Josef is a not-so-benevolent dictator. Nora models understanding and compassion. Both live into the discipline of their faith.
While “ Forsaking Mimosa” is focused around Max and the Brinkmann family, other youngsters share this process of coming of age. The story of Max's classmate, Adele Rhinehart, is my favorite. I'd call her mother a floozy if the story was set in the 1920s. In any case or age, Ms. Rhinehart is a party girl. However Adele's "sin" is she gets to read Steinbeck's “ Grapes of Wrath” aloud to her incapacitated aunt and uncle. Alas, her mentors at Saint Agnes have Steinbeck on the list of those authors paving the path to perdition.
Good stories draw the reader into the world created by the author. As this "non-review" demonstrates, Winn succeeded with this reader. And exactly when did Max "forsake Mimosa?” He didn't. Mimosa went with him to boot camp and beyond. But I guess that's Winn's next book.