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Tobacco Sticks
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YA‘It's impossible to read this novel without thinking of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, and it inevitably pales in comparison. To make matters worse, the Southern and black dialects are overdone, and the bad guys are one-dimensional. But if readers can take a breath and forget Mockingbird, there's an enjoyable and complex story here. Lee (!), 12, is the youngest of four children in a family in turmoil after World War II. His father is a (mostly) principled lawyer defending an innocent black woman against criminal charges brought by powerful, racist men. Lee's favorite brother comes home from the war wounded in the foot and is suspected of cowardice; his oldest brother comes home a hero without ever seeing action; and his married sister picks fights with everyone. Despite soap-opera-like entanglements, the plot convolutions are effective and gripping, even if occasionally melodramatic (such as when the father is struck blind just before the big trial). All the elements of the book work together, and if the targets of racial bigotry and oppressive capitalism are too obvious nowadays, that's a small price to pay for an exciting story that will propel YAs along from start to finish.‘Chip Barnett, Rockbridge Regional Library, Lexington, VA

Set in 1945, this skillfully crafted novel by the author of Ripples chronicles the coming-of-age of Lee Hartwell, the pubescent son of a Richmond, Va., lawyer, whose close-knit family is torn apart by WWII and its aftermath. The adult Lee narrates in the particularly resonant tones of nostalgic Southern elegy. The novel also touches on the major dramatic mid-century changes in the American South: the growth of organized labor (organizers are trying to unionize a local steel mill); the tenacious hold of old-style politics on a hotly contested senatorial campaign; and the brewing revolution in race relations. At home, 12-year-old Lee is troubled by his family's cool reception of one ex-soldier brother, who was shot in the foot (it's implied that the wound was self-inflicted), while the swaggering eldest brother, who saw no combat, is warmly welcomed. When his father decides to defend a young black woman, believing she has been framed to protect the incumbent senator's reputation, he is forced to resign as the senator's Richmond campaign manager, and the town turns against him. Young Lee is also taunted by his friends, and his achingly sweet relationship with the daughter of the steel tycoon backing the senator is also threatened. Explosive racial tension, betrayal and murder, difficult ethical and social decisions, first love and a dramatic denouement in a sweaty Virginia courtroom are skillfully entwined in this haunting tale, which has all the characteristics of a good summer read. (July)

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