Monday, June 3, 2013

Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage

Sheila Turnage’s first book for kids, Three Times Lucky, is set in Tupelo Landing, North Carolina, population 148. Eleven-year-old Moses “Mo” LoBeau works in the café that joins up with her house for the summer. She is under the care of Miss Lana and the Colonel, two larger than life characters who have been like parents to her. Mo floated down the river to Tupelo Landing on the night of a hurricane when she was still a baby, and was rescued by the Colonel. She has lived with them ever since, although she still floats messages in bottles down the river in hopes that her Upstream Mother will read them and come to find her.

When local resident Mr. Jesse turns up dead one day, Tupelo Landing is quickly taken over by Detective Joe Starr and Deputy Marla as they investigate the case. The town is populated by characters who are dynamic and nuanced, from Mo’s best friend Dale (named Dale Earnhardt Johnson III after the race car driver, while the “’III’ in Dale’s name stands for Dale Earnhardt’s car, the Immortal Number 3”), Dale’s older brother Lavender Shade Johnson, Mo’s enemy Anne Celeste, Mayor Little (“We always choose a Little for mayor in case a television crew ever comes to town. Littles like to talk and they’re naturally neat; even their babies dress good”), to Dale’s dog, Queen Elizabeth II.

Aside from Mo, Dale was my favorite character in the book. Although Mo’s back story includes losing and never knowing her mother, her life with the Colonel and Miss Lana seems close to charmed. The Colonel calls her “Solider” and gives her advice that holds up outside of the story itself, and Miss Lana dresses up in wigs and costumes and clearly loves Mo. Dale’s home life, however, is less than perfect. His nineteen-year-old brother Lavender moved out of the house the second he could and lives a short drive away. His mother, Miss Rose, is stuck in a horrible marriage, and Mo notes, “Miss Rose used to be a real beauty, back before time and Dale’s daddy got a hold of her. That’s what people say: coal-black hair, a tilt to her chin, and a sway that made men stand taller.” Dale’s father, Macon Johnson, is in a constant state of drunk, and his behavior is such common knowledge that even Mo thinks hardly nothing of it when they pass him on the road drunk driving:

“That was Daddy,” Dale panted. I nodded, trying to ignore the heat of his breath against the back of my neck.
“He wasn’t weaving,” I said comfortingly.

And when Detective Starr comes to town asking questions, Dale won’t even give up his own name at first. Instead he says,

“Me? My name is…Phillip. Sir.”
The café gasped and I gave Dale a sharp kick in the shin. “I mean, it’s Dale,” he said, his eyes filling with tears. Dale’s family is like that. Let the Law come within twenty yards of them, and every male over the age of six – uncles, brother, fathers, cousins – starts lying his fool head off. Dale says it’s genetic. Miss Lana says that’s poppycock.

Three Times Lucky is one of those rare books where every character could star in a book of his/her own, from protagonist Mo to a much minor, but no less important, character named Grandmother Miss Lacy Thornton. It is also one of those perfect summer books that starts just after school gets out in June, and carries through the summer (Mo and Dale are actually horrified to see their teacher Miss Retzyl outside of the school itself). It feels timeless in its setting, something that could be read fifty years ago and could be read fifty years later. I am really looking forward to whatever Turnage writes next!

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