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Sonny is only one of the spies at the Bradshaw house in Mozier, Alabama. But as a child he saw a tray full of dinner come flying across the front hall at his father. His mother's aim was dead on. And Daddy's departure promptly followed.
Loretta, Sonny's older sister, spies by eavesdropping. As she tells him, "How else am I going to survive in a family tight-lipped as tombs?"
But the kids' spying only scratches the surface of what's really going on in this 1950s family in the deep South. While Deaton, the youngest, worries about pirates and vampires, and Uncle Marty, family protector, serves up scripture with every bite at the Circle of Life donut shop, somebody is watching.
Somebody unsuspected by Sonny. But at thirteen he knows something's fishy, and he intends to find out what. That's why one Friday after Uncle Marty pays him for dishwashing at the Circle of Life, he sneaks out of town, first by bike and then by bus. Selma, his mama; Mamby; Nissa; Uncle Sink; Aunt Roo; his sister and brother -- nobody from that all-too-serious but often hilarious crew has a clue where he's gone. And even Sonny can't say exactly what he's after, until those tight-lipped tombs start talking, and life in the house on Rhubarb changes for good.
Racially divisive, homophobic, post WWII Alabama serves as the setting for Lyon's (Borrowed Children) exceptionally well-crafted coming-of-age story. Sonny Bradshaw is six when his father walks out, leaving him, baby brother Deaton and the acerbic eldest child, Loretta, in the care of their emotionally fragile mother. Over time, portly "Uncle" Marty, owner of a donut shop where he serves up Bible verses with the clairs and fritters, "reaches out" to the family, sharing meals and offering Sonny a job the summer he's 13. "Viruses reach out to you too," notes Loretta, who gets the best lines in a book full of spot-on dialogue. At the shop, Sonny uncovers a letter to Marty from his absent father that sets in motion a dramatic series of events culminating in a confrontation with Marty about homosexuality and sin, followed by a fatal fire. Lyons deftly contextualizes Sonny's horror at the discovery his father is a "queer," a stigma so threatening some would rather die than live with it. A subplot about the family's African-American maid highlights the equally insidious racism of the period but pushes the plot almost to the point of boiling over. Fortunately, Lyon's sharply drawn characters steer the story away from melodrama, and she balances the heavy elements with humor: a birds-and-bees conversation between Sonny and Deaton comparing human anatomy to hot dogs and buns is hilarious. The ending, which leaves Sonny in a romance with an undeveloped minor character, is not as satisfying, but the rest of the story more than makes up for it. Ages 11-14.