Loss affects our lives profoundly. Most of us ponder such things from an adult perspective, we with the power to heal or hurt, but here Alison McGhee looks at loss through the eyes of children who have not yet made their place in the world, still struggling for definition from their surroundings and the people around them.
Within the confines of a small Midwestern bakery, three young people gather day after day one languid, streaming summer. Joseph is sixteen, consigned to a wheelchair for the rest of his life after an accident he refuses to talk about, save that this, now, is his new reality. His father, Big, works the night shift in the bakery, drinking himself into a stupor to survive the torture of his days, oblivious to his son’s activities.
The seventeen-year-old son of the bakery’s owner, Zap, is the least unhappy of the group, his dreads tied back with bits of bakery string. Mornings find him running a commentary on the day’s events, the customers who will visit and the nature of their purchases. Mostly, Zap makes up tall tales about Joseph’s injury - that the newcomer is a superhero who was hurt while performing a great deed in the service of mankind.
Finally there is Enzo, a brittle nine-year-old with a bad attitude toward life in general, scowling and argumentative as she excoriates the two older boys, demanding that they validate her theory on Joseph’s injury. Enzo believes Joseph has flown off the side of the earth, soaring through the sky before falling to the ground.
Intolerant of anyone who disagrees with her, Enzo madly waves her automatic pencil, her “clicker”, announcing that she is the Mighty Thor and must be addressed as such. The tiny rebel tolerates no discrepancies, particularly in Joseph’s case. She needs him to be a hero, desperate to control events in a black-and-white world that has yet to treat her kindly.
The summer drags by, heat pressing relentlessly upon the bakery, even the bees drunk on sugared lemonade unable to rise to a challenge, save a small burst of flight near the gesticulating girl who is deathly afraid of them. Enzo wages an endless tug-of-war with Joseph and Zap, demanding that the boy in the wheelchair not disappoint, Zap a foil for her outbursts, her pain scorching them all.
Struggling to accept his changed life, his history of protecting a mother who could not protect him, the towering mountains and clear blue skies of a home left behind, Joseph cannot subscribe to Enzo’s fatuous label, forcing her to face the truth as he must. Even Zap reveals the unspoken that has coexisted with their summer vigil, the outside world beckoning and no comfort in sight.
In spite of themselves and their clumsy dance toward acceptance, the three battle their personal demons, Enzo kicking and screaming, finally subdued by the careful attention of the boys, united in adversity. McGhee taps into the enduring spirit of childhood, these unlikely friendships a balm to the brutality of life.