Michelle Buckman’s distinctive voice, vivid and authentic characters, and brutal honesty are very much in evidence in her seventh novel,”Turning in Circles.” Stunning, suspenseful, and poignant, this coming of age story is set in the South, in a town so small it barely seems to have come blinking into the 21st Century. There’s something about the literary spirit of America’s South– some knack that sets writers like Michelle Buckman apart from authors whose roots are elsewhere.
Taut with suspense, yet rich in descriptive detail and character development, the story grips us from the opening lines and won’t let go. I love the deceptively simple, timeless opening: My sister lay sleeping in the sun on the beach beside me. Narrated in hindsight by a heroine who’d give anything to rewrite a chapter in her life, “Turning In Circles” haunts us with what-ifs. Every decision we make has consequences, not just for us, but our loved ones, our neighbors, even our pets, and for the whole community.
Savannah and Charleston, so close in age they’re practically twins, are named after towns that “epitomized the South and all a Southern woman ought to be, as if we lived back in some historic generation when women wore long gowns and went about with escorts to teas.”
More than sisters, they’re kindred souls. They’ve always kept each other’s secrets, always had each other’s best interests in mind–until Dillon, the local bad boy, adds Charleston to his collection of conquests.
In an age when other teens are immersed in video games and cell phones, these girls are busy with chores on the family farm. Their best friend and neighbor is a hard-muscled, calloused guy named Ellerbe who rides a horse to school. Ellerbe is the best teen hero I’ve seen in all the fiction I’ve read in the past ten years. Or twenty. How do we get our teenage daughters to look beyond vampires and werewolves to the sterling virtues of the boy next door, who is in fact nothing short of awesome?
Ellerbe’s beloved Snow is as near and dear to his heart as Daddy’s mare, Boudicca–“the pride of the county–a beautiful buckskin Lusitano.” The local sheriff will stop at nothing to acquire Boudicca for himself, even test a father’s love for his wayward daughter. When Dillon lures Charleston into assorted law-breaking antics, she’s not to the only one who will suffer the consequences. Most kids get away with all sorts of mischief, but sometimes, thoughtless, reckless teenage behavior has tragic consequences.
While a sense of impending doom keeps us turning pages, the prose sparkles with rich, warm, and loving details. Though danger lurks and a beloved sister strays from the straight and narrow path, a leisurely sense of summer in the South takes readers to front porches, or among families over the dinner table. Every detail matters, every observation, every incident.
Several subplots emerge, naturally and inevitably, reminding us how the rich but troubled history of families is also the rich history of the troubled south. The racists, the innocents, the broken homes; the vicious dog fighting, petty vandalism, and bullying; the sheriff protecting the good ol’ boys; the judgments we make against others, not knowing the facts. “It doesn’t take long to figure out where a person’s loyalties lay,” Savannah observes.
One of the most stirring subplots involves Hickory, a 35-year-old black man with the mind of a child. Charlie and Savannah have nothing but affection for him.They wouldn’t dream of hurting him.
“I loved Hickory,” Savannah reflects. “Every afternoon, he stood at the end of the dirt road that led from his house to Brown School Road and waved cars by as if he was conducting an orchestra.” Tell Hickory it’s hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk, and he’ll set off with an egg to fry. The scene is almost slap-stick funny, but sad, an every maddening detail in the story is is portentous.
Savannah nails the mood and attitude of her world. There’s Jim Miller, who “developed a thing for Hickory’s mama back years ago. Folks said he couldn’t do enough for her boy in those months when he first got it in his head to win her over.”
And there’s the new teacher at school: “No one knew much about Mr. Jefferson or if he had even been a teacher prior to that. What we did know was he was cousin to Sheriff Darlington, moved in from the other end of the state, but everyone in town was related some how or other through blood, property or feud.”
Then there’s Tasheika.
Tasheika “wasn’t just black; she was a gorgeous girl with chocolate skin and a beautiful blonde, white mama with a figure to die for. Whatever political correctness and blurring of racial differences had come about in the rest of the world had skipped right over Mr. Jefferson’s heart. He was still living back somewhere between Mama’s historical romance novels and modern day. Knowing what I did about him and how I’d seen him look at her mama …I’d say it burned him to the core of his soul to think of a black man married to that pretty blonde lady. So he was out to get Tasheika.”
Savannah takes us step by step through the gradual escalation of conflict, like a stew heating in a pressure cooker that’s gonna blow. She reflects on what happened, wondering if she could have done things differently.
“God granted us the free will to sow our seeds as we see fit,” Savannah says, but she cannot bear seeing her sister’s exercise of free will. It’s Ellerbe whose wisdom helps her put things in perspective.
The theme will hit hard and true for anyone who’s ever watched a loved one make bad decisions, and tried to steer them from the wrong path, only to see one misstep lead to another. From the serenity of the opening scene, “the peace of the whole world around us” and God’s glory “shining down in that everlasting blaze of South Carolina sunshine,” Savannah pulls us with her, inexorably, as her world spirals down, down around her, and finally shatters. It’s a journey nobody wants to take, but at the end of that tunnel, a shining light named Ellerbe brings Savannah back into the circle of life.
What makes one sibling so headstrong and foolish, the other so sensible? This is only one of many questions that would make “Turning In Circles” a great subject for the high school classroom. If I had to choose between “Rome and Juliet” and this story, I’d choose this one. Romeo was an idiot, while Ellerbe’s heart is true.
Ah, Ellerbe: “His hands were strong, like rest of him, used to hard work under the hot southern sun.” He’s good at physics. No matter what, he’s always there for Savannah. She may be slow to realize that, but she does notice “his hands, his ragged nails, cracked and broken from hauling hay, fixing fencing boards, mucking stalls, or whatever. I’d seen him use his nails to pry up boards and watched him smash ice from troughs in the winter with his bare hands.”
Savannah may not be ready yet to think of Ellerbe as anything more than a friend, but she knows Dillon is nothing but trouble. He’ll just “turn you into some gross saying on the bathroom wall like with Erin,” she warns, but Charleston, like teenagers everywhere, believes bad things happen only to other people.
Even when Charleston’s whereabouts are sure to get her grounded, should their dear, devoted parents found out, Savannah feels she has to cover for her sister. Loyalty is everything… right? And yet, the harder Savannah tries to reason with Charleston, the farther her sister, her soul mate, heads down the dark road that good girls fear to tread.
Their sixteenth summer began so well, that day on the beach: “Right then, no one could have convinced me life was less than perfect or that heaven was more than a whisper away for either of us, and on that day I would have been right,” Savannah reflects.
The final lines are as simple, and as epic, as the opening lines: “and we continue to stroll hand-in-hand down the beach, the rain misting around us,” Ellerbe’s horse “plodding along behind to the beat of time moving on.”
Did I mention that Ellerbe is the best teen hero I’ve seen in forever?
Millions of young readers, I hope, will agree.