Review of In Zanesville
I am supposed to be on a recreational reading hiatus, since I still have an act of Children’s Hour lines to memorize, but as I exited my school library this week, a book caught my eye: In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard. Upon reading the synopsis, I immediately checked it out, hoping it would help me with my thesis. While I was the age of my main character- and the main character of this novel- not too long ago, certain authors have a way of expressing the same adolescent thoughts I had in ways I’ve never dreamed of. I was not disappointed by Jo Ann Beard’s insight.
The book is about a fourteen year old living in the 1970s Midwest. I would tell you her name, but Beard never mentions it. More savvy readers might figure it out , but surprisingly, it’s not troubling to be so in the dark about an identifier. Of course, maybe that’s the point: the protagonist is still trying to figure out who she is, so while everyone else, even the most minor of characters, have some form of moniker, the main character has no label for herself.
In Zanesville covers everything about being fourteen, from the mundane things that seem too boring to include in a book (marching band practice, doing laundry) to the typical excitements and dreads that occur in teenage-dom (the first party with boys, arguments with family), and all of it is done with an incredible style. Beard has a unique approach to writing that is so completely thought-driven and easy to read that sometimes the book in your hand is the only reminder that these notions are not going through your own head in real time. For example, in the early pages of the book, the protagonist and her best friend Felicia are preparing to march with the school’s band in a town parade. It is just as they’re getting into position that the protagonist realizes the gravity and potentially permanent geekiness of being in marching band. She thinks,
“I am what I do at this point, and if I do this, I’m done for. Once I march in their parade, I will be in it forever, uniform or not.
Felicia, unaware, has gone back to her spot. She’s been stationed in the very middle, like a tent pole, and I’m on an end, where everyone in Zanesville can get a good look.
With that, Wilson sweeps his arms upward and then downward, sending the band shuffling forward[…] where the rest of the parade is forming.
Right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right left, right left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left.”
But don’t mistake the main character for being a girl only concerned with being popular, or, at the very least, not being labeled a nerd. She has other problems, including a perpetually drunken father, who she worries will kill himself any day now; a mother who can’t work enough to support her large family; and the gross panic that comes along with possibly, maybe feeling something for a boy.
Beard uses her talent with words to bring us completely and uniquely into the world of the novel. Her main character describes her father as “tall and tanned, with the haunted brown eyes of someone who does something terrible for a living.” Her younger brother looks like him, with “the same warm, shattered eyes.” Once, when the protagonist and Felicia are caught hanging out on someone else’s terrace, they attempt to hide by sitting stock still in the night, their “white tennis shoes throbbing in the darkness.”
The narrator also deals with the usual teen girl problem of facing boys, romantically, for the first time, and it is one of my favorite aspects of the book. While she certainly has the vain thoughts of a typical teen- she laments at her flat chest and, after getting up the courage to speak to her crush, she stands there waiting for his reciprocation while “the wind blows across the barren landscape of [her] chest.”- she also thinks more deeply about her confusion at the changes she’s going through. “I’m tired of figuring things out for myself!” she thinks mid-way through the book. “Just tell me why I look like this, feel like this, behave like this […] Why am I awake when everyone else is asleep, and what if that boy doesn’t know any better and likes me?”
But while the protagonist knows change and growth is inevitable, she’s not rushing into it. When she attends her first party at which alcohol is being served, she’s taken to a secluded spot by a popular, fairly nice boy whom she knows from her history class. She muses at how close they’re getting, physically, and that it’s not altogether unpleasant, but when he tries to kiss her, she thinks how awkward it will be when they have to see each other in class on Monday and pulls away. “Better to be the plain girl from his history class who didn’t kiss him,” she figures, “Than the plain girl from history class who did.”
This last point is exactly what I wanted from this book: the thoughts on growing up, how sometimes one has to be wrenched away from childhood, and the overwhelming realization of both the internal and external changes one goes through in those early teen years. Some of the protagonists musing on this subject took my breath away. A few choice quotes, since paraphrasing won’t do them justice:
“I’m sick of being a teenager. Being a teenager so far hasn’t gotten me anything beyond period cramps and a nameless yearning, which I had as a kid, too, but this is a new kind of nameless yearning that has boys attached to it.”
“In the dresser mirror, my face looks the same, but I feel something happening around me, some change as palpable as the weather. Stuck in the mirror are mementos from my childhood […] which is now over. I wandered through it and came out the other side.
It’s a stark feeling. Like getting to the last page of a book and seeing ‘The End.’ Even if you didn’t like the story that much, or your childhood, you read it, you lived it. And now it’s over, book closed.”
“The girl cousins I played with at those long-ago family gatherings all turned out boy crazy, and I see now why, leaning against this kid while he slowly bunches my shirt up, and eighth of an inch at a time. There’s something delirious and drowsy about this whole endeavor.”
“Nothing happened, and yet it feels like something did, because things aren’t the way they were before.”
“My troubles are accumulating. The dying kitten, waiting in the cobwebby dark for me to do nothing, and now the canary, put to bed while it’s still light outside, trapped behind a dishtowel, encased in the terrible fate of a bird who has never flown, but watches[…] while other birds land and take off from the clothesline. Sometimes he sings so elaborately and desperately that I have to put my hands over my ears.”
In Zanesville is a book that will take you by surprise with its wit and its insight. I hesitate to label it as YA, because the pace seems slower than most YA, but it’s certainly smart enough to be placed in that category. But I don’t care who you are; this book is too beautiful to be left on the shelf. Seek it out. Devour it.