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The Year of the Sawdust Man

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LaFaye's beautifully written first novel is filled with poignant insights into a hurt child's fragile psyche and resilient spirit. Set in a small, early-1930s Louisiana town, the story is narrated by 11-year-old Nissa Bergen, who is urgently trying to gather the broken pieces of her life after her mother abandons the family. Nissa's desperation borders on unnerving, but LaFaye lightens the story with Nissa's memories of her mother's refreshingly candid and whimsical nature. Nissa's father, a quiet, gentle man who has obviously been a parent to both Nissa and his wife, explains that Heirah Rae left because he couldn't make her happy. At first Nissa accepts this, but as she goes deeper into her pain and anger, she sees that her mother's special qualitiesÄher free-spirited nature and unmitigated nonconformityÄare the same ones that have brought reproach on the family from the community. LaFaye's poetic images paint a clear picture of impetuous Heirah Rae, a woman capable of both growing gloriously delicate purple roses and burning a whole garden to the ground ("Like the fire, Mama jumped from one place to the next. Papa was worried about the house, but she flew right to a whole other idea. She planted her hands on her hips... then said, `I could also pack up and leave.'" Readers will likely yearn for days similar to the best ones Nissa shared with her mother, when they chased butterflies, gazed at stars on their roof and danced in fancy dresses on Friday nights. But they will also applaud Nissa's courage in facing the truth about her mother's lack of responsibility and her father's need for a stable home. This bittersweet, moving debut reveals a writer capable of plumbing the depths of a painful situation to surface triumphantly with compassion and humor. Ages 8-12. (June)

Gr 6-9-Nissa, 11, lives in the tiny Louisiana town of Harper in 1933, when her mother decamps, leaving a confused and grieving daughter behind. During the year that follows, Nissa tries to come to terms with her loss, with her father's growing attachment to another woman, and with her feelings of guilt and yearnings. The historical, small-town setting lends a slower, more innocent tone to the story than a modern setting might give, yet the feelings expressed are universal and deep. The author creates a believable set of characters and a realistic environment, and sustains them well with a lyrical and leisurely use of language. Readers will care a great deal for Nissa and her family. The readability level is low enough for intermediate grade students, but the complexities of the emotions and the situations the characters must deal with are adult in nature, even though the narrative is softened with euphemisms.-Darcy Schild, Schwegler Elementary School, Lawrence, KS

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