In an Alabama town in the early 1950s during the last polio summer before the Salk vaccine, ten-year-old Tabitha "Tab" Rutland is about to have the time of her life. Although movie theaters and pools have been closed to stem the epidemic, Tab, a tomboy with a passion for Roy Rogers, still seeks adventure with her best friend Maudie May, "the lightest brown colored person" she knows. Now as they meddle with the local bootlegger, Mr. Jake, row out on the Tennessee River to land the biggest catfish ever, and snoop into the town's darkest secrets, Tab sets out to be a hero...and comes of age in an unforgettable confrontation with human frailty, racial injustice, and the healing power of love.
The setting for this nostalgic coming-of-age first novel is the last "polio summer" of 1954, just before the Salk vaccine ended the annual poliomyelitis epidemics. With the Bainbridge, Ala., swimming pools and movie theater closed, and fear and germs in the air, eight-year-old narrator Tabitha "Tab" Goodloe Rutland, her 13-year-old friend Maudie May, and Maudie's two young brothers--who can speak but don't or won't--build a hideout and christen it Fort Polio, the scariest name they can think of. Near a creek and hidden by kudzu (the official flower of Southern literature), the fort affords the perfect vantage point from which to watch the local bootlegger and his seemingly respectable customers. Here they plot to free the neighbor boy whose mother makes him stay inside the house all summer, and ponder the truths they read in Silver Screen. Meanwhile, Tab's mother, considered a northerner because she was born in Tennessee, seeks acceptance in the exclusive Ladies Help League. Devoto's story has its charming moments, but Tab's voice is often cloying, the ending is contrived and much of the narrative has a by-the-numbers quality. Roy Rogers makes a brief appearance at the beginning, then vanishes with his white hat and reassuring promise that justice triumphs, just as Tab begins to realize that it doesn't.