Tate Ellerbee is an outsider, although she’s never really lived anywhere other than Rippling Creek, Louisiana. Her family has what now might be called “issues” – her parents are gone under less than glamorous circumstances, her relatives are not wealthy, and she’s been targeted by a mean girl. When her new teacher asks that everyone get a pen pal, Tate starts writing to her favorite singer, Hank Williams, in care of the Louisiana Hayride show. He doesn’t write back, although he sends a few pictures, but that doesn’t stop Tate.
Tate’s letters straddle the world as she wants it to be and the world that really exists. Sometimes she’d just like to seem a little more or a little less than what she really is. She’s not completely honest, but when you find out the truth, you understand why she’s kept her secrets. By the end, she’s used the letters to bridge her journey from being a lonely outsider to being someone with plans for her life, scary and challenging as that might be.
I wasn’t sure if I’d like this book when I started it. (I love epistolary novels, so it’s not about that.) At first, it all just seemed a little too quaint – a kind of idealized walk down memory lane to the less complicated late 1940s. But Kimberly Willis Holt does skillfully includes the racial and political tensions of the time in subtle ways which add to the story without being too heavy. The characters develop slowly but authentically, and the secrets, mistakes, and losses of Tate’s story come together to create a many-layered picture. Nicely done.