A young boy’s life in mid-20th-century America persistently and unpredictably veers off course in this novel.In many ways, 11-year-old Marky is a typical kid in 1950s Kansas. He collects baseball cards like other boys his age, goes fishing and hunting with his father, and has a good shot at winning his town’s annual turtle race. But his family is not immune to hardships. Marky and his siblings, for example, rarely see their dad, Boyd, who works the graveyard shift at an aircraft plant 30 miles away. Their mother, Gerry, is a manic-depressive; Marky adores her but is perpetually worried about her oscillating moods. After two decades of marriage and six children, Marky’s parents engage in arguments that escalate in frequency and violence. Intense fights send Gerry fleeing to a neighbor’s house only for Boyd to chase her down. With his older siblings out of the nest, Marky becomes the rotector of his two little brothers. The three boys stick together when Gerry makes plans to leave her husband for good—and take her sons with her. But Marky’s life takes another turn for the worse, as his parents’ never-ending feud culminates in him and his brothers stranded at a foster farm. Now, they’re saddled with uncompromising farm chores and endure merciless punishments if they stray from their foster parents’ strict rules. Marky struggles to keep up with academics and farm work and to ensure his remaining family stays close. But an indelible figure from his past makes a surprise return and offers him a momentous choice. Wentling’s novel largely comprises a series of subplots. Some of these spotlight Marky’s happier times with his family. He and his mother design the fastest soapbox car they can for an upcoming derby, although it may be a bit too fast. But the book also has its share of quirky stories and supporting characters. One highlight is Marky’s unconventional” best friend, Leroy. He’s a tween passionate about earning money and even more obsessed with Dr Pepper, to the point that he practically throws a tantrum when a local grocery store doesn’t have the soda. Unfortunately, the cast is primarily underdeveloped, including Marky’s older brother and sisters and even his younger siblings, who suffer many of the same burdens as he does. Still, the author’s straightforward prose is chock-full of details. A chapter devoted to Marky’s neighbors and family zeroes in on a chiropractor’s sudden arrest and an “odd” couple who die mysteriously, their live-in relative having vanished. Likewise, the author enhances the tale with historical touches, especially surrounding World War
Gerry is a troubled but capable woman who, during the war, worked at the same plant that employed Boyd. Similarly, stories unfold in such places as a soda fountain and a movie theater, back when a Saturday matinee costs a mere 15 cents. As this work only covers a few years of Marky’s life, Wentling may have a sequel in the works. Nevertheless, the open ending makes a worthy denouement and effectively alludes to the opening chapter. An absorbing coming-of-age tale set against a realistic American backdrop.
Mark G. Wentling was born and raised in Kansas, but made in Africa. He retired from the Senior Foreign Service in 1996. He has worked in Africa for 50 years for the Peace Corps, nongovernmental organizations and for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Honduras (1967-69) and in Togo (1970-73). He was also an Associate Peace Director in Togo and Peace Corps Director in Gabon in Niger. He knows all 54 of Africa’s countries and has previously published eight books, including a three-volume Africa Memoir released in 2020, and many professional articles. He currently resides in Lubbock, Texas with his Ethiopian wife and one of his seven children.