It is 1967 and drugs, Vietnam, and family farms giving way to corporate farming are the topics of conversation in many Iowa communities. Charles Weaver is graduating from his small, Iowa farming town high school as the valedictorian. He has great plans for his last summer in town before going off to Des Moines to attend Drake University – including finally having sex with his long-time sweetheart. But life plans are rarely as well ordered in reality as they are in desire. Charles and his girlfriend break up, and Charles gets a summer job working with the local street crew.
Working with the street crew is a surprise to everyone who knows Charles. The son of a local attorney and city council member, Charles doesn’t appear to be cut out of manual labor. He’s a scholar, likely to become a lawyer like his father. Could he last more than a day working up a sweat, shoveling tar to fill pot holes or driving tractors?
But Charles will learn valuable lessons from this over-worked, under-paid, mostly uneducated crew. Not only will he last more than a day, but he will seem to thrive in his time with the gruff but resolute men on the crew. And this won’t be the only surprise for those in town who know the boy … he begins to date the daughter of the crew chief – a girl he knew only slightly in school – who has a troubled history that she can’t seem to shake, though Charles may be an answer to some of her prayers.
While I have the inclination to refer to this as a ‘coming of age’ story, I feel that the term is almost demeaning to a book with this much power. Labeling the book only puts it on the same metaphorical shelf as all the other ‘coming of age’ stories and really this one is different somehow.
Of course Charles comes of age here … graduating high school is only the first step in the growth that we’ll see along the way. Seeing his father in a new light – the way others see him as well as seeing him man-to-man rather than son-to-father is very much another step on Charles’ path to adulthood.
But we also have his physical maturity – almost overly obvious with the recognizable muscle growth on his skin frame from all the hard labor he performs over the summer. He’ll also encounter his first dead body and face corruption and evil at its ugliest.
And sex. Well … perhaps here we’re reminded that Charles is still a boy and hasn’t fully come of age just yet.
Though I’m a tad younger than the main character of the book, I did grow up in a rural Midwestern town during the Vietnam era. I recognized these people and these situations. I saw bits of myself in Charles (or bits of Charles in my youth?) which made this particularly poignant to me.
There were moments that I wanted to see a different result – for someone to react differently or to make a different decision. However, in each case I realized that the author’s choice wasn’t always his to make – sometimes the characters really did seem to have a life of their own.
All the featured characters are strong, unique, and easily identifiable. Is it because I grew up in a small town and now live in an even smaller town, that I can precisely picture each and every one of the people named here?
Looking for a good book? Summer of Love and Evil by Michael Kinnamon is a powerful story of a young man’s journey through love and evil and death and growth into adulthood.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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Summer of Love and Evil
author: Michael Kinnamon
paperback, 250 pages