Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe

You want VOICE? Here’s VOICE.

Cover copy: “All her life, Cricket’s mama has told her stories about a secret room painted by a mysterious artist. Now Mama’s run off, and Cricket thinks the room might be the answer to getting her back. If it exists. And if she can find it.”

The expectation set, readers set off with Cricket to solve a mystery. But after a few pages, the story turns out to be so much more than that.

Cricket, the child of a mother with mental illness, wants nothing more than to be reunited with her mama, a fiercely creative woman who burns as brightly, and with similar instability, as Edna St. Vincent Millay and her candle.

In this paragraph readers get an inkling of Mama’s pull on young Cricket:

“Meandering with Mama while Daddy was offshore was like wearing a special pair of glasses, part binocular, part microscope. Mama never walked anywhere. She ambled. She skipped. She strolled.

“Walking is for other people,” she always told me.

“What people?” I would ask.

“Those people. People who don’t see things the way we do. We’re meanderers, Cricket. We pay attention.”

The book is rife with unusual similes and metaphors, ones that fit the vision of a sixth-grade narrator.

The woods smelled like a hundred and fifty years of dark.

With only me left, it was like there just wasn’t enough weight to hold Daddy to this earth.

After Grandma died, Mama used to say a lot of things she might not remember later. She sprinkled them around like salt and pepper on a ripe tomato—things she wanted to do, things she meant to do.

Cricket’s grandmother has died. To cope, her mother disappears, and then her father dies, leaving Cricket with no one to turn to but an aunt who’s more interested in finding “a new husband to take the place of Daddy’s no-account brother” than in being a nurturing substitute mother.

Cricket vows to bring her mama back for good by finding “the bird room” Mama had told her so much about, a venture that leads her to the woods,

an apt metaphor not only for the love she seeks from her mother, but also for her search for her own identity.

This funny and moving debut novel by Jo Watson Hackl took ten years to write. It shows.

The story was inspired by a real American ghost town called Electric Mills and an artist named Walter Anderson. For readers who want to know more about the ghost town and the artist, along with several famous people mentioned in the book, the author provides a list of resources at the end of the novel.

And yes, the author learned about mental health issues, entomology, and outdoor survival techniques, including fire starting, shelter building, and foraging for edible plants to make all references to these topics in the book both accurate and realistic.

Title: Smack Dab in the Middle of Nowhere

Author: Jo Watson Hackl

Publisher: Random House, 2018

Ages: Middle grade

7 thoughts on “Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe

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