Book Review: “Belle Prater’s Boy” by Ruth White

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The 1997 Newbery Medal went to this book about growing up in Virginia in the 1950s. The tale is told by Gypsy Leemaster, a beautiful girl who carries long, golden tresses on her head and a terrible loss in her heart. She lives in Coal Station, Virginia, on the more well-to-do side of town, with her schoolteacher mother and her newspaperman stepfather, next door to her grandparents. Things get interesting when her cousin, cross-eyed, bespectacled Woodrow Prater, moves in with the grand-folks. His father hasn’t been up to the job lately, boozing and womanising and treating the boy poorly. As for his mother, Gypsy’s Aunt Belle, no one knows where she is. One morning at 5 a.m. she got out of bed and disappeared without a trace.

The two cousins become fast friends as each of them works through the loss of a parent. Meanwhile, they have some remarkable adventures, including a brawl with a schoolhouse bully, a garden party at which the local prude inexplicably gets tipsy, a bout with the chicken pox, and the quarrels and personal crises that are included in the package called adolescence.

Ruth White demonstrates a keen ear for the way ordinary people speak, a deep compassion for children who have to struggle with tough problems, and a flair for jokes, puzzles, and high jinks that make the story sparkle even when it’s describing things we already know. If you read this story and agree, be sure to look up the sequel, titled The Search for Belle Prater.