When I was in college I drove to school every day in my 1955 Buick Dynaflow. These trips were almost entirely uneventful. But one morning when it had snowed heavily overnight I slid into a snowbank on Main Street in front of the Braleys' house. Arthur came out and helped shovel me out and I was on my way. No big deal. But when I got home that evening, my mother was waiting at the door to see if I'd been hurt or if there had been any damage to the car. How did she know it had happened? Six or eight people had phoned her that day to ask about it. That's how it is in a small town. Everybody knows your news before you do.
Big Stone Gap, a real place in the Blue Ridge Mountains of far southwestern Virginia, is a town like that, or it was in 1978 when Adriana Trigiani's novel takes place. Ave Maria Mulligan is the town pharmacist like her father before her and at 35, she is considered the town spinster. She has a reasonably full life, directing the town's summer drama production (named for The Trail of the Linesome Pine, the 1908 book by John Fox), delivering prescriptions to shut-ins, reading books from the bookmobile, chatting with her friend Iva Lou, and hanging out with her best friend, Theodore Tipton, band director at the high school .
But she isn't happy. She would like to have a man of her own. She is confused by a letter left to be read after her mother's death telling her a surprising family secret. She is rejected by the man she thinks she is in love with. And a campagin visit to Big Stone Gap by Senate candidate John Warner, accompanied by his wife, Elizabeth Taylor, provides only a short period of excitement before Ave's life settles back into its boring routine.
Everybody in town knows about her family secret almost before she does and her friendship with Theodore is well and truly chewed over by everyone in town. Ave longs to visit Italy, her mother's country of birth, where she has aunts and cousins and other relatives. She wants to get married - at least until she gets a couple of unexpected proposals when she finds she doesn't really want to get married after all.
The book is full of small but interesting (to the people in town and to the reader who soon begins to feel like one of them) plot twists. The residents of the town are very nicely described and many of them change in one way or another during the course of the story. Ave in particular struggles, trying to figure out who she is, who she wants to be, and how to get there.
I knew about this book, which was published in 2000, but I wasn't interested in reading it until I read a review of Milk Glass Moon, posted recently by Les at Prairie Horizons. That novel is the third in the series and I came away from the review wanting to read it, but these books must be read in order so I started with this one. It was interesting to see that Les and some others who left reviews on Goodreads had trouble getting into the story. I was delighted from the first page, in particular because of the voice of the narrator, Ave Maria:
This will be a good weekend for reading. I picked up a dozen of Vernie Crabtree's killer chocolate chip cookies at the French Club bake sale yesterday. (I don't know what she puts in them, but they're chewy and crisp;y at the same time.) Those, a pot of coffee, and a good book are all I will need for the rainy weekend rolling in. It's early September in our mountains, so it's warm during the day, but tonight will bring a cool mist to remind us that fall is right around the corner.
The Wise County Bookmobile is one of the most beautiful sights in the world to me. When I see it lumbering down the mountain road like a tank, then turning wide and easing onto Shawnee Avenue, I flag it down like an old friend. I've waited on this corner every Friday since I can remember.
How can that beginning not draw you into the life of the narrator? I wanted to visit that bookmobile and have the driver, Iva Lou Wade, recommend some new books to me. And I'd dearly love to taste those chocolate chip cookies. This is a book that is heart-warming and familiar without being at all sentimental. Give it a try.
And the Buick? It threw a rod or something and was towed off to the junk yard. I dearly wish I still had it today. Mine did not have whitewalls.