The whole world in front of her

A debut novel about growing up when the adults around you still haven't

Growing up is hard - particularly in a novel. For every well-drawn Huck Finn and Scout Finch, a thousand unfortunate children limp through the forest of American fiction, misshapen characters oozing adult sentimentality or spouting artificial insights.

"The Center of Everything," a debut novel by Laura Moriarty, seems at first destined to join the ranks of the rank. The narrator, 10-year-old Evelyn Bucknow, lives with her welfare mother in a small Midwestern town where she learns hard lessons about love and loss.

Ordinarily, I would rather live in a small Midwestern town with love or loss than read a novel about a 10-year-old girl doing so, but Moriarty pulls it off.

The secret to her success is a pitch-perfect voice and unfailing restraint. She's so good at portraying the charming mixture of egotism and insecurity, humility and grandiosity that marks adolescence.

Little Evelyn is a plain, observant girl whose deadpan humor never gets deep fat-fried with green tomatoes à la Fannie Flagg. The decrepit apartment complex that Moriarty creates contains the usual catalog of domestic ills associated with chronic unemployment and substance abuse, but it demonstrates the tenuous stability of such places more than the melodramatic tragedy we see on TV.

Like any child, Evelyn confronts a world of baffling contradictions, competing claims for her allegiance and affection, from which she knows instinctively she must construct a moral code.

By all accounts, her mother has done everything wrong. Snobby neighbors make crude comments about the married man who drops by with groceries. On television, Ronald Reagan is tired of welfare queens "having babies without husbands and driving around in Cadillacs while everybody else has to work hard."

"We don't have a Cadillac. Yet," Evelyn observes nervously.

At school, sympathetic teachers try to impress upon her the importance of not following her mother's footsteps. Her conservative grandparents are a constant source of disapproval, determined to save poor Evelyn from her mother's shameful dissipation.

But her mother is a force to be reckoned with. Proud, headstrong, and tenaciously devoted to her daughter, she insists on laying down the law even while honestly acknowledging she hasn't always made the smartest moves herself.

Moriarty negotiates these competing claims just right. Desperate to stake out her independence, Evelyn turns to her grandmother's evangelical church, where she can judge her mother from the height of longsuffering piety. Her mother disapproves of these "hypocrites and charlatans," but her criticism only confirms Evelyn's devotion, of course. And besides, they offer a kind of moral clarity and confidence that appeals to a confused girl.

One of the great pleasures of this novel is Evelyn's effort to make sense of the foggy theological claims hovering around her and reconcile them with the world she observes. "In my head," she says, "God has dark red hair and a beard. He doesn't wear clothes, but it's okay, because you can't see below his shoulders anyway. Everything else is always covered by clouds. Jesus looks exactly the same only he has blond hair, and wears a white robe and sandals. This is how you can tell them apart. And Jesus, I understand, is nicer than God, a little less likely to kill you if you do something wrong."

Pastor Dave and his happy congregation assure Evelyn that she's in the center of everything, and she can't help wishing they were her parents, instead of her sinful mother. But when the church members march to school to protest the teaching of evolution, she sees just how small and skewed their vision of everything is.

So where is a smart, skeptical girl to turn? The materialistic determinism of her beleaguered science teacher seems entirely logical, but no more satisfying an explanation of the world than her grandmother's Christianity. Her good friends can't see anything beyond shoplifting, sex, and getting high, activities she knows are wrong but knows she must never say are wrong. Her own mother bores in on her with lectures on responsibility even while she gets pregnant again without prospects of a husband or job. Even Ronald Reagan is in trouble, mired in the Iran-contra scandal.

"I don't know what to think," Evelyn admits. "It would be easier, maybe, if you just didn't think at all." That seems like the choice of so many of the people around her, but it's not for Evelyn. Struggling to reconcile all these disturbing models, she says, "I try to map it out in my head the way you can do with a story problem in math. But there is no space like that. The lines keep crossing over one another. They would have to be curvy to make it work."

But Moriarty does make it work in this "curvy" novel, whose appeal should extend from women's book clubs to high school summer reading lists. By listening closely to the innocence and perception of adolescence, she's invented a moral geometry that allows her to skewer and cherish simultaneously. There's no cheating in this novel, no phony breakthrough, or precious reconciliation, just a sweet, often comic series of tender moments spun from real-life battles and moments of kindness among unsorted laundry.

Evelyn grows into the kind of complex young woman who would never mock another's church or picket a science class, spit on a teenage mother or become one, disparage poor women or trade arms for hostages. What's best, her mother, the strong-willed, self-destructive woman who makes mistakes she knows she shouldn't, eventually emerges from Evelyn's laser-sharp evaluation with a kind of muted triumph that Evelyn can appreciate. And if we're paying attention, we can too.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles.

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