Kerry Madden was kind enough to send me all three books in her Maggie Valley trilogy: Gentle's Holler, Louisiana's Song, and Jessie's Mountain. Sending all three was a nice touch on Kerry's part, and helped a lot, because I think that these books need to be read in order. Reading them all at once was nice, too, because I was able to fully immerse myself in Maggie Valley, North Carolina.
The Maggie Valley books are set in the early 60's and feature the Weems family. The Weems' live in a ramshackle house in a rural Smoky Mountain valley, and consist of a practical mother, a dreamer/musician father, and nine (eventually ten) children. The stories are told from the first-person viewpoint of 12-year-old, Livy Two, second-oldest living daughter, namesake of Livy One, who died at birth.
Livy Two is a musician to her bones, playing guitar and composing songs, and wanting nothing more than to be close to her Daddy. Her southern voice is pitch perfect. If you can read these books without hearing the voice of a southern girl in your head, well, all I can say is that you've clearly never been to North Carolina. Because, without using a lot of dialect, Kerry nails the vocal patterns perfectly.
Here is the first passage that I flagged, where I can hear Livy Two's voice:
"My big sister Becksie pokes her head out the window from her own bunk bed, like to scare me half to death. Becksie's real name is Rebecca, and she is by far the bossiest creature to ever live." (Page 2, Gentle's Holler)
In Gentle's Holler, the first book of the trilogy, the Weems family copes with financial hardship stemming from the father's sporadic work, and the growing realization that three-year-old Gentle can't see properly. Although they struggle with hard times, they have love and music to keep themselves going. They are also helped by a quiet but caring neighbor, and one of the best librarians ever written. The story ends in tragedy, but also in hope.
In Louisiana's Song, Livy Two's focus shifts from Gentle to her nearest-in-age sister Louise, a talented but shy artist. Louise's personal growth is set against increasing family struggles (the result of the tragedy from the end of the first book), and the beginnings of the serious possibility that the family might have to leave their beloved Maggie Valley. We also see Livy Two starting to grow up in this book. For example, she begins to take her music, particularly songwriting, more seriously, noting:
"each and every day that I don't at least try, I feel like life is slipping by at breakneck speed." (Page 73, Louisiana's Song)
In book three, Jessie's Mountain, the children learn more about their mother, Jessie, through the gift of her childhood diary. Livy Two also takes matters into her own hands, making a quest to improve her family's fortunes. Things don't go quite as planned, however, and she pays a price for her impetuous actions. The threat of having to leave Maggie Valley draws ever closer, and Livy Two and her siblings struggle to preserve their family, their home, and their self-esteem.
All three books are lyrical and heart-warming, and likely to bring tears to your eyes. However, they have enough humor to keep them from being sappy, and enough conflict to keep them interesting.
When I began the series I was a bit confounded by the sheer number of Weems children, afraid that I would never keep them straight. By the time I was part-way through the first book, however, they were as real and distinct to me as people I knew.
All of the characters in the series are multi-dimensional, and most grow and change throughout the books. The evolution of Livy Two's father is downright remarkable. I also enjoyed the children's teacher, Mr. Pickle, who is a far from sympathetic character initially, but gradually reveals hidden kindness. Even the one sister who I had no use for throughout the entire first two books blossomed into someone of interest in the third. The children's Grandma Horace and Uncle Buddy are also complex and unpredictable, neither completely good nor completely bad. Kerry Madden resists the urge to make even the most minor characters stereotypes. She's also able to give the various characters unique mannerisms, without making them seem quirky.
Art-related themes run through the Maggie Valley series: the love of music, the love of books, and the appreciation of art and beauty. The love of music is admittedly the most pronounced, but Livy Two's love of books is constant and true, and Louisiana's art feels special, even though as readers we can't see it.
Livy Two's fondness for music is apparent from the very start of Gentle's Holler, when she muses:
"(I saw) Miss Patsy Cline at the Buncombe County fair while visiting Daddy's kin, and she's got a voice to soothe your head and make your heart hope." (Page 5, Gentle's Holler)
I love that! Livy Two's appreciation of books also comes across early:
"But before I go to sleep at night, I need my books stacked up beside me where I can drift off reading the titles. I love the lending library lady, Miss Attickson, who always saves books for and old magazines." (Page 10, Gentle's Holler).
And here is Miss Attickson herself, on the subject of books:
"My, I do love picking out books for children. It's about my favorite thing in the world to watch a child fall in love with a book. Warms my heart." (Page 217, Gentle's Holler)
Throughout the series, Miss Attickson provides the children with the books that they need, including books in Braille for Gentle. She also finds paints for Louise. This resourceful lending library lady makes a major quality of life improvement for the rural Weems family.
Another thing that the Maggie Valley books convey to the reader is an appreciation for the early 1960's. Real-world people and events are woven through the story, from Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy to the Beatles to Tootsie's Orchid Lounge in Nashville. For the most part, this information feels natural and organic, especially the characters' reactions to the Kennedy assassination. Only during Livy Two's visit to Nashville in Jessie's Mountain did I feel that there was a bit of extra background coming across. But it may have just felt that way to me because I don't know much about the history of the country music industry, so that the details stood out more.
All in all, though, I loved these books. I feel like I've just returned from the rural 1960's south. I'm happy to have spent time with the Weems family, especially Livy Two, Gentle, and Louise. I wish that I could see their family of pet groundhogs, and hear Livy Two play the guitar. And I wish that I could meet Miss Attickson, and thank her for making a difference. As you can see, these are books that crept into my heart, and that I'm likely to re-read in the future.
I recommend the Maggie Valley series for middle grade readers of both genders. Although the titles and cover illustrations are more likely to appeal to girls than to boys, the escapades of brother Emmett and the outdoor adventures of all of the children are more boy-friendly than you might expect. These books would make excellent family read-alouds, suitable for younger children, but revealing more complex layers for older kids. Although not at all 'message books', the Maggie Valley books give readers an appreciation for the pros and cons of rural life, and the hardships faced by families struggling in the margins. This is a perfect series for kids who loved the Little House books to read next, before moving on to Hattie Big Sky. Highly recommended.
Publisher: Viking Juvenile
Publication Date: 2005, 2007, 2008
Source of Book: Review copies from the author
Other Blog Reviews: Lectitans, Greetings from Nowhere, Bildungsroman, Big A little a, and A Fuse #8 Production
Author Interviews: Elizabeth O. Dulemba (from the Louisiana's Song blog tour), Lectitans, and Cynsations. See also this Montgomery Advertiser article about Kerry Madden.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.