I had never even heard of Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage when it won a Newbery honor earlier this year. I think that’s sort of odd since I even half-way followed the ALA award chatter on the mock Newbery blog, Heavy Medal. (It turns out that it was discussed there, but it was before I had tuned in.) However, I wanted to read it because I have this little half-formed goal of reading all the ALA notables before I die (especially the Newberys), and besides, the Amazon description sounded good:
A hilarious Southern debut with the kind of characters you meet once in a lifetime
Rising sixth grader Miss Moses LoBeau lives in the small town of Tupelo Landing, NC, where everyone’s business is fair game and no secret is sacred. She washed ashore in a hurricane eleven years ago, and she’s been making waves ever since. Although Mo hopes someday to find her “upstream mother,” she’s found a home with the Colonel–a café owner with a forgotten past of his own–and Miss Lana, the fabulous café hostess. She will protect those she loves with every bit of her strong will and tough attitude. So when a lawman comes to town asking about a murder, Mo and her best friend, Dale Earnhardt Johnson III, set out to uncover the truth in hopes of saving the only family Mo has ever known.
Full of wisdom, humor, and grit, this timeless yarn will melt the heart of even the sternest Yankee.
I mean, I’m a Southerner, so I can “get” these characters, right? And besides, I like strong female protagonists, and this sounds like yet another story full of quirky, small-town characters, which I generally like. Well, by the end of this story, I did like it, but it wasn’t without its problems for me.
First, sometimes quirky just seems over-the-top–like how many quirky characters can we fit into one small town? I’m not sure that that’s an entirely accurate description for this particular novel, but somehow starting out with a protagonist named Mo (short for Moses) LeBeau who was rescued as a newborn in a hurricane set me up to expect more quirkiness, so even when the characters aren’t particularly quirky (like maybe they’re just ornery instead), I saw it as quirky. This sometimes seems like a tired, old schtick for middle grade fiction to me by now. Second, I’m kind of over all the middle grade novels with nontraditional families. Now, don’t get me wrong–I know that nontraditional families exist, and in fact, I know quite a few and have quite a few in my own extended family. Like the novels chock full of eccentrics, though, these novels with families in which the child lives with people of no blood relation to her are many and similar. (Often, the parental figures are not even the protagonist’s adoptive parents–they’re just people who picked her up along the way, apparently.) Mo LeBeau lives with the Colonel and Miss Lana, an unmarried couple who apparently have some affection for each other, but who live rather unconventional lives in a trio of connected apartments. The only intact family in the story is headed by an abusive, alcoholic father and husband, so it seems pretty off kilter. Third, and this one is limited to this particular story, I don’t appreciate the inclusion of profanity in most middle grade novels. The couple or three curse words in this story seem really out-of-place, mostly because there are so few of them (which I realize is an odd thing to say about something I’m complaining about) and even the villains in the story seem somewhat sanitized, except for this. I don’t know. The whole thing just seems a bit “been there, done that” to me.
This last thing is more of an observation than anything, especially considering that these are mainstream novels written by mainstream authors. I’ve noticed this tendency in middle grade novels for a sort of nebulous spirituality to be included. Here’s an excerpt from a letter Mo writes to her “Upstream Mother” (her birth mother):
Death makes you think. Everybody has a way of believing.
The Colonel says God took Sunday off, so he does too. He walks in the woods or lies on his bunk. He says if God needs him, He knows where to find him. Miss Lana believes in treating people right. She mostly hits Church Festivities–Easter, when she wears a new hat, and Christmas Eve, to cry while Dale sings “Silent Night.”
Dale goes to church because Miss Rose likes him to. I sometimes go to keep him company, and hear stories of the Original Moses[. . .]
Lavender, who I will one day marry, believes in NASCAR Zen, which I suspect he made up[. . .]
What do you believe? Please let me know.
If you’re wondering about me, like Miss Lana I believe in treating people good. And like the Colonel, I think God can find me. (176)
While I’m not exactly expecting the novels to include the Gospel, I’m just sort of sick of (or maybe sad about?) the lack of real Christians in these stories. As a Christian, this gives me pause–not from the “I’m banning these books from my reading list” way, but in a “why aren’t Christians better represented?” way. (For another novel that’s very similar to Three Times Lucky but does include a born-again Christian, read my review of Lucky for Good by Susan Patron. The similarities between Three Times Lucky and Lucky for Good extend beyond the similar titles.)
The saving grace in all this is the mystery in the story, although it is very slow to get off the ground. It’s an unlikely sort of story, but then, the whole premise of the novel is rather unlikely. Ultimately, though, the exciting ending left me with a good taste, rather than the previous indifferent and or even bad taste, in my mouth. I still don’t think it’s necessarily a Newbery level story, but for a novel in a genre overpopulated with novels of similar construction, it’s a fun read. (Dial, 2012)