Dutton, 2016 291 pgs.
Eleven-year-old Annabelle is growing up on her family's farm in rural Pennsylvania during World War II. Her predictable life gets shaken up when a new girl named Betty enters her one-room schoolhouse. Betty is a bully of the worst sort and a liar to boot. She threatens Annabelle using her brothers as bait in exchange for money. Annabelle is undecided as to how to handle the situation, which escalates as her best friend looses an eye at the hand of a carefully aimed rock, thrown by Betty. Betty twists the situation around, blaming a mentally damaged WWI veteran, Toby, who squats in the family's abandoned smokehouse. When Betty disappears, folks from the community point fingers at Toby. Annabelle knows that he is innocent and that Betty was most likely hurt while causing trouble. She cleans Toby up, dresses him in Grandpa's castoff clothes, and hides him in the barn. Her plan next involves Toby joining the rescue efforts. Annabelle has a sudden revelation of where Betty is and sends Toby and the rest of the rescuers to save the day. Betty is found and retrieved by Toby from the bottom of an abandoned well and both Toby (who introduces himself by his last name) and Annabelle are heroes. Despite being rescued and under doctor's care, the worst possible outcome finds Betty and the small community becomes passionate about capturing Toby and punishing him for what they think are his misdeeds. Annabelle concocts a new plot to get Betty's friend to reveal Toby's innocence, but is she too late to save him?
To Kill a Mockingbird meets The Walton's in this step back into America's rural past. Wolk bases this tale on the childhood stories of her mother and the authenticity comes through in her writing. The reader truly experiences what farm life was like during this pivotal time in our history. Wolk nails Annabelle's voice and allows her to be a realistically flawed hero that kids will both emulate and relate to. Even though the main character is a girl, boys will enjoy this story and the beautifully designed cover is neutral, inviting both sexes to the party. Annabelle does not have an easy life. Unlike today's children she is expected to do serious chores and contribute to the family. She lives before televisions were introduced into the homes of Americans and communicates on a phone with a party line and a nosy operator. Through it all, she has a loving family and a happy life. Facing adversity and moral dilemmas once Betty moves to town, Annabelle rises to the occasion and follows her moral compass, even when doing the right thing is the tough choice. Many ethical themes are brought to light in this novel including the importance of honesty, the painful motivation of bullies, PTSD and the plight of the veteran, family unity, loyalty, and making the right choices, even when it is hard. The story is craftily told, offering a swiftly moving plot and twists and turns along the way. It will be useful for teachers, as well as enjoyed recreationally. Give to fans of The War that Saved My Life and Jennifer Holm.