The two children in the tree are cousins: Gypsy Arbutus Leemaster and Woodrow Prater (Belle Prater’s boy). Each has lost a parent, and White takes her time to reveal the stories behind the losses. The two become acquainted, and then best friends, in Coal Station, Virginia, summer of 1954.
Woodrow has just moved in with Gypsy’s grandparents, who live next door to Gypsy’s family in this small town. Gypsy has been instructed to say NOTHING about Woodrow’s mother, which she disobeys by immediately asking him explicitly what he thinks happened to make her disappear one morning, in her nightgown and bare feet. And Woodrow tells her. But not everything, not right away.
One of Rumi‘s poems is important in the story, and it’s so beautiful I’m including it:
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you./Don’t go back to sleep./You must ask for what you really want./Don’t go back to sleep./People are going back and forth across the doorsill/where the two worlds touch./The door is round and open./Don’t go back to sleep.
Woodrow believes his mother has slipped into this place where the two worlds touch, his conviction adding to the mystery of her disappearance and lending an almost supernatural flavor to this story.
But it is definitely not a tale of the supernatural. It’s truly 1950s America, in the coal hills of Virginia, where modern conveniences are starting to appear. Gypsy’s grandparents have a TV, and the children go to see Rear Window one memorable afternoon. There are wienie roasts by the river, midnight rambles, and conversations in a tree house, all in an idyllic town complete with apple orchard and barbershop where the town’s men hang out just to chew the fat.
The cousins join forces against the sometimes insensitive adults and often cruel children of Coal Station, and Gypsy eventually discovers something that Woodrow seems to know already — that to be seen for herself, and not as her mother wishes her to be, she needs to know her whole story.
The sequel, The Search for Belle Prater, is now on my to-read list.
Next up: 3 re-posted appreciations of Barry Hughart’s Number Ten Ox and Li Kao.