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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Stephenson, Lynda Dancing with Elvis. Eerdmans, 2005 [336p]
ISBN 0-8028-5293-9 $17.00
Reviewed from galleys R* Gr. 7-12

We're about a half-century on from some significant changes in America, and we've been consequently seeing quite a few books that retrospectively examine the fight against segregation, the entrenchment of small-town ways, and the secrets within communities and within families. Few of them, however, have approached the passion, readable particularity, and sheer vitality of Dancing with Elvis.

It all starts with a grand gesture: in the summer of 1956, fourteen-year-old Frankilee Baxter (with the encouragement of her mother) rescues classmate Angel Musseldorf from her abusive mother and brings her home to live with Frankilee's family. Frankilee is subsequently stunned by Angel's sense of entitlement, dramatic manipulations, and sexual precocity, as well as the Baxter parents' persistent willingness to overlook those characteristics and treat her like a second daughter. That personal change for Frankilee mirrors—and occasionally connects with—changes undergone in the next few years by her small West Texas town. Attempts to integrate the high school are being met with resentment by much of the white population and unease by much of the black, and then a young black man, son of the Baxter's beloved housekeeper, Wanita, is mysteriously shot dead, bringing defensive secrecy as well as grief.

Underpinning these dramatic stories is a rich and complex exploration of the nuances of Frankilee's community. Wanita may be a strong-minded and appreciated member of the pro-integration Baxter family, but she understands in a way they don't what aspects of that closeness aren't genuinely voluntary. Football plays a key role, with the white school's coach pushing for integration mainly so he can add some decent players to his lackluster team; faith is also a part of life, whether in Frankilee's spurts of enthusiasm (ˇ§And the Holy Ghost! Mercy. The Holy Ghost is so coolˇ¨ ) or in the African-American church's tenderly moving funeral service for Wanita's slain son, William. And as in any community, smaller impulses—youthful misjudgment, greed, boredom—can direct events while hiding behind larger motives.

Characterization is as vivid as setting. Frankilee's forthright narration, spiced with often truly creative swearing, colorfully conveys the ferocity of her loyalty and affection as well as her dislikes (ˇ§Angel probably can't help being a little shit, because she doesn't have a loud, obnoxious West Texas family like mine and hasn't known that she is dearly loved from the minute she was bornˇ¨), and the consistency of her voice helps bring the disparate elements of the story together. Frankilee's parents aren't thoughtless do-gooders but an interestingly dissimilar pair, driven by belief in justice, graciousness, and a certain amount of pure stubbornness; Wanita and her family are neither saintly nor tamely picturesque as they live their lives with keen awareness of the color line they must always negotiate. Though Angel turns out to be even worse than Frankilee had thought (she and her family are veteran fraudsters who've been sucking money from the sympathetic for years), she's an intriguing character whom we—and Frankilee—never fully know, as multifaceted as the rest of the cast.

Even readers usually uninterested in period fiction will be sucked immediately into Frankilee's world, and curiosity about the fate of Angel, the culprit in William's death, and the future of Frankilee and her small town will ensure they remain absorbed. With its quirky individuality and passionate humanity, this is an unforgettable picture of this time, place, and girl.

Deborah Stevenson, Editor

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Cover illustration from Dancing with Elvis © 2005. Used by permission of Eerdmans.


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