Although Ouida Sebestyen's poignant novel, set in the rural Texas of 1929, is written for adolescents, within its straight-talking, evocative pages there is more to ponder than in many novels written for adults. The central character, Salty Yaeger, is only 13, but he faces enough harsh practicalities and learns enough about the ambiguity of human relationships to serve for a lifetime.
Salty's first hurdle is the most tangible and by far the easiest to surmount: Ater his mother's death he must provide for himself and his great grandmother, Mam. His only legacy is a scrawled note from his mother: "Go to Tom Buckley. He take you in. Love him." Salty knows that Tom Buckley was the owner of Buckley Arms, a decaying boardinghouse where his mother did housework, and that he can probably find work there, but he doesn't know why he should "love him."
So Salty makes the dusty trek into town to the Buckley Arms, where he finds Tom, his wife, Babe, his jokester brother, Hardy, and a puzzling new life. Although Tom is initially reluctant to take him on, he relents and allows Salty, Mam, and their pet goose, Tollybosky, to join the household. From the start there are problems, beginning with the inability of strong-willed Mam and equally strong-willed Tollybosky to fit smoothly into their new, chaotic environment. But a far more serious problem arises when Salty eventually learns that Tom is the father he never knew he had. Tom's unwillingness to reveal this fact to Babe and assume a full role as parent is what Salty must learn to accept with an understanding not easy to come by.
Along the way to this understanding he finds friendship and insight with Hardy; his wife, Rose Ann; a pregnant young woman named Jo, using the Buckley Arms as shelter from her gangster husband; and a disagreeable little girl across the street. In each case the characters are believably drawn, their dialogue fresh and natural. Sebestyen, author of last year's critically acclaimed "Words by Heart," has done a particularly fine job of conveying the atmosphere of 1929 Texas, deftly and unobstrusively weaving in the idioms and pastimes of an earlier age. Her story, focusing as it does on what constitutes home and family , rings true for any era.