29 November 2007

On Main Street

The lives of ten year old Flora Northrup and her eight year old sister Ruby change abruptly one night in January when they go out with their parents for ice cream: a car accident robs them of their parents. Their kindly grandmother Min lives with them for the remainder of the year, then sells their home and packs them up, bag, baggage and their beloved cat King Comma to the little Massachusetts town of Camden Falls, where Min and her partner Mrs. Walter own "Needle and Thread," a sewing/stitchery store on Camden Falls' main street.

Soon Flora and Ruby are ensconced at Min's home, one of the historic Row Houses a block away from Needle and Thread. Through summer visits, they are already friends with Mrs. Walter's granddaughter, Olivia, a budding naturalist who skipped a grade and who is in Flora's class. In the course of the first book, they also make friends with Nikki Sherman, a generally shunned girl who wears old clothing and sometimes cannot bathe everyday. Nikki tries her best, but her father is an alcoholic and a "mean drunk" at that, who terrorizes her, her mother, older brother, and younger sister, and her mom, as a way to cope, also drinks.

This is the premise of the "Main Street" books by Ann M. Martin, who is well-know for the "Babysitters Club" book series. While I never had any interest in the latter, the first three books in the "Main Street" series sounded appealing as a counterpart to the almost idealized Callahan Cousins books. Both feature brisk grandmother characters, but Min—who loses her temper and occasionally is cross—is much more realistic than Grandmother Gee, and the novels are a little less fairy-tale: the girls have to do chores, help out at the store, and there is no fairy-tale ending for Nikki, whose alcoholic father is simply a fact of life (although one wonders if there is no children's protective agency in Camden Falls). The stories are simple enough for tween kids, but the neighbor characters are intriguing even for those older: a Downs Syndrome teenager who is about to graduate from his special school and take his place in the working world, an older gentleman who realizes his memory is beginning to fail and who takes Olivia into his confidence, and an elderly couple who face separation when the wife develops Alzheimer's disease. Quiet Flora's struggles with grief for her mother and father contrast sharply with outgoing Ruby's seeming acceptance of the event (which Ruby carefully compartmentalizes). These are people you might meet: neighbors, co-workers, even relatives.

The books so far are:
• Welcome to Camden Falls
• Needle and Thread
• Tis the Season
and a fourth to be published in April:
• Best Friends

You may enjoy a visit to this Main Street. I certainly did.

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