The Sweetheart of Prosper County is a coming of age story by debut author Jill Alexander. Fifteen-year-old Austin Gray finds herself tired of living in the background at her rural East Texas high school. After years of torment from town bully Dean Ottmer, Austin gets it into her head that if she can just be voted "Sweetheart of Prosper County", and ride on the hood of a pickup truck in next year's town parade, her problems will magically be solved. Becoming Sweetheart requires her to join the Future Farmers of America (FFA), and raise a farm animal. She chooses a rooster, who she names Charles Dickens. Supported by her long-time best friend Maribel, Austin makes new friends within the FFA (and with a flamboyant Elvis impersonator). She gradually learns to stand up to her over-protective mother, and to be more satisfied with who she is.
I liked Austin's voice, and the innate wholesomeness of the story. The Sweetheart of Prosper County is a young adult book that includes a minor love interest, but is much more about the main character's relationships with friends and family. It's a YA book that you can safely give to an advanced 11-year-old reader (though the personal growth aspects will resonate more with older kids). I also liked the matter-of-fact way in which Jill Alexander treats the rural Texas lifestyle. Being in the FFA is completely accepted, as is keeping a rooster in a hardware store. I also loved that Austin's widowed mother ran a hardware store (I grew up reading behind the counter in a family hardware store myself). The book doesn't shy away from addressing the cultural differences between families of Mexican descent and not. Austin is jealous of Maribel's quinceanera, but not so jealous of the way that the Latino kids are harassed by redneck racists at school. Maribel, who keeps her head held high in the presence of racism, and concocts Mexican-Texan-Cajun foods, is a wonderful character.
I found the male characters to be less developed. Josh, a boy from the FHA who is interested in Austin, is a bit too good to be true. And Dean the bully is a bit too bad to be true, if you know what I mean. I didn't quite get why he was so merciless to Austin, and I wanted to shake her to make her stop noticing him. Still, I think that Jill Alexander is a debut novelist who bears watching. She demonstrated several nice turns of phrase, passages that inspired flagging. For example:
"I had heard stories for years about the old man living in the woods, fighting roosters for money and selling bootleg whisky. I always imagined his operation to be more like a convenience store on Friday night. But there was none of that. The old gas station had a heavy weight about it. A sinking weight. Maybe it was the rock sides with the fog pressing against them. But between the blue lights and the dark night, I felt like I was being held underwater." (Chapter 3)
"Momma talked a lot about moving on. But I looked around the kitchen. Neither one of us ever sat in Daddy's chair at the table. His tools were still in the garage. Momma's wardrobe was black except for blue jeans. She was a walking bruise. She moved on about all sorts of daily trials, but Daddy's death was different. She loaded that up and carried it with her." (Chapter 10)
Like Austin herself, The Sweetheart of Prosper County is quirky, independent, and sweet-natured. It provides a nice window into small-town Texas life, on top of some suspense about the death of Austin's father. While I don't adore Austin quite the way that I adore DJ Schwenk, I would still give this one to girls who like Dairy Queen. It is due out on Tuesday, just in time for back-to-school reading.
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publication Date: September 1, 2009
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher. Quotes are from the ARC, and should be checked against the final book.
Other Blog Reviews: Carrie's YA Bookshelf, Librarilly Blonde, BermudaOnion's Weblog, Pop Culture Junkie, Steph Su Reads, Readspace
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.