It was 1990. It had been years since Lee Addison returned home to see his family. He had been in California going to law school and soaking up all that the west coast had to offer a back woods boy from Riverton, Arkansas. During the last few years he had opened his mind up to many of the practices of those around him. His friends in California were health nuts. They ran every day and ate healthy food. As a result of the drilling and constant need to rationalize everything, God was not something seen as real to most of the law students. It was hard to hang on to religion when you had to back everything up with facts as well when you're being grilled by the professors. But coming home meant the closed minded and conservative attitude of the south. Church was the center of most smaller towns and although desegregation had happened so long ago, there was still the under current of racial bias.
Destined to be a formidable lawyer, like his grandfather before him, Lee comes home to work at a local firm in his hometown for the summer. None too soon either. The firm is working on the case of the drowning of a black youth from a few years back. The family is suing the town for negligence and Lee is brought in to help out on the case. He soon finds out that he disagrees with how the case is being handled. As if to add to the stress, his sister M.J., has had some difficulties for quite a while now getting through high school. She doesn't fit in and had been hanging out with older guys who had become quite a bad influence on her. Trouble flares up on every corner when Lee meets up with his old high school flame, Annie. And she is still only being as civil as she can after he just dumped her years ago. He hadn't wanted to be tied down when he started working towards his career goals. Lee comes to learn that he is still in love with Annie and she is still in love with him. But he's only down for a few months and it's killing them both to think that he will have to leave soon.
While Lee is down for the summer, M.J. gets drunk one evening and hits a 9-year-old girl with her car on the way home. It is a shock to everyone in the family. The girl doesn't live and it looks like M.J. is facing jail time. For Frances, Lee and M.J.'s socialite mother, it is the worst possible scandal that could happen to their family. She always tried to make M.J. fit in and be popular with the other kids. She had tried to fit M.J. into a mold that the child could not fit in. Image and social status was everything to Frances. It was bad enough that their family had been shunned when her husband had run off with a much younger woman when the children were little. Now their family was going to be shunned for good. Their image and status was ruined. M.J. was so tired of dealing with everything that she took some pills and ended up on suicide watch at the hospital. Her mother starts realizing there are more important things in life than social status and image. For once, Lee cannot be in control of the situation. He learns that sometimes others have to take over in situations we cannot control and he also learns a little about letting his heart take the reigns instead of his constantly rationalizing head.
In some ways the south has not changed that much. As a resident of rural Arkansas, I can honestly say that there are still many communities that revolve around their churches in the area. And where I am from, you can find a church every few blocks. Religion is a big thing still. And people still eat just as unhealthy as twenty years ago. Who could say no to homemade biscuits and gravy, eggs, and sausage? Or peas and cornbread? While people are much more used to the mixing of all types of nationalities and races, there are still those that cling to the old ways. They will probably never change.
Of all the characters, Frances and Etta Jones were the two most striking. Two completely different women, and yet they were both stubborn and rooted in their community. Etta Jones was a source of comfort to Lee and M.J. while going through all of their troubles that summer. She was sort of a spiritual leader to them. While Frances was a source of discord for both children, but mostly M.J. There was a deep rooted bitterness within her because of her mother's treatment of her. Frances had pushed too hard in areas that she should not have and had not been the supportive mother that she should have been. Frances's husband leaving her with two young children had left her quite broken and a mess. She had a problem with alcohol, and M.J. followed right in her footsteps in that area.
Lee Addison is completely stuck between two very different worlds. Although he dislikes the town of Riverton and what it stands for in so many ways, there are things that make him slow down and think about the bigger questions in life. His neighbor Etta Jones causes him to really think on the morality of things, especially of the drowning case he had worked on. Annie had awakened a part of him he did not know existed. It was not just about lust anymore with her. He was deeply in love with her. Deep down he wanted a life with her. But his life waiting for him in California threatened to tear that apart. California called his name hard. It was the other world that was taking him away from his hometown. Back to the business of things so he could forget about having to deal head on with problems at home. No more insane humidity and rural lawyers.
Of all the negativity within the book, the end is absolutely the best. Etta writes a letter to her little sister Lovey and it ties things up nicely about how everyone turned out. In the words of Etta:
Everybody have they own kind of heartache.
Some things never change, but then again, some do. But I won't be telling you about that. You'll have to read the book!
For more information on Marcia Kemp Sterling and her book check out:
*images courtesy of Marcia Kemp Sterling
*quotes courtesy of The Bible, Marcia Kemp Sterling (One Summer in Arkansas)