Meet Charlene Rae Bucher. That is Charlene as in Char-broiled. To say the young protagonist lives an unconventional childhood would be quite the understatement. She and her mom and dad live in a camper—a tin can on wheels, as she dubs it—and make their home at campgrounds. They anchor in Wisconsin in the summer where her dad and his ragtag gypsy friends find work in the Christmas tree industry. I’ve never been a camper, but the author’s description of the campgrounds and its atmosphere placed me right there in the middle of it. While Charlene watches other families enjoy a vacation in the woods of the campground, she longs for normalcy in her own life.
Author Mary Zinda creates a poignant, humorous, colorful coming of age story that should appeal to both adolescents and adults. While the book deals with alcoholism, drug use, shady dealings, teen pregnancy, and no sense of permanent roots, Charlene and the book never lose a strong sense of humor. The author finds such an ideal, colorful voice for Charlene’s narration; I could hear it so vividly as though she were reading it aloud to me. (It would make a great audio book.)
She’s matter-of-fact and poetic at the same time. In describing her feelings over her father’s departure, she says: “Like Momma said, Daddy was a free bird. He needed no reasons or excuses for what he did or who he was. But before the day he took off on us, my life had already begun to unravel. Unlike my free-spirited father, I looked once more for a tether that would keep me tied to the rusty pole that was my life—much like the tether ball set at Creek’s Edge.”
Wiser and brighter than the adults surrounding her, Charlene knows this is not the life she wants. She takes us on her journey to make a better life, and also to resolve her family’s own little mysteries. I don’t want to give too much away by stating what those mysteries are.
I wonder what direction Charlene’s life would have taken had she not become friends with Delbert, the retired preacher who spent summers at the campground. His guidance, friendship and love proved central to her growth. He talks to her, counsels her and, more importantly, listens to her.
The book is a delightful, satisfying read. After each chapter, I felt compelled to continue as Charlene narrated the next chapter in her story.