In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee created Scout; in “True Grit,” Charles Portis created Addie; in “Clover,” Dore Sanders created, Clover, all delightful young heroines. Now along comes Minnesotan Connie Claire Szarke and creates another delightful young narrator named Callie in “Delicate Armor” (North Star Press, $14.95 paper).
Callie Lindstrom lives in a small southwestern Minnesota town called Masterton with her mom and dad and older sister Liz.
Callie swears like a trooper, gets bored at church services, makes fun of the liturgy. Like juvenile narrators before her, she’s smart and whenever she doesn’t know a word that her parents don’t want her to understand, she runs to the dictionary.
This startlingly good first novel opens in the 1950s and as you might expect, it’s loaded with nostalgia.
But don’t hold that against it. Szarke digs deep for her nostalgia. Roy Rogers isn’t her idol. Nor is Gene Autry. Who does she want to marry?
Rex Allen, who else? Remember him? He was the singing cowboy with the trombone.
For all its nostalgia, what we have in the Will Lindstrom family bears little resemblance to Ward Cleaver’s ideal family. Grandma Lindstrom can’t abide her perfectly nice daughter-in-law and manages to say so at every Thanksgiving.
Callie’s father can’t stand his brother Ray, a slippery insurance salesman from Sioux City, and usually refers to him as “that S.O.B. And Ray is a perfect angel compared to his utterly insane wife, Eloise, who drinks martinis and smokes Lucky Strikes ever morning.
And what about Masterton? It has its share of characters.
On top of that there are two attempted murders as Callie grows into young womanhood, fishing for sunnies alongside her father, a replacement for a brother who died soon after childbirth. Szarke gets down to the nitty gritty in a scene when her father teaches her how to skin a bullhead and describes her collection of spent shotgun shells, how they smell and how none of them have a firing pin indentation in exactly the middle of the brass cap. She describes a man her father rescues from a cistern as “flopping around like a dying carp.”
One reviewer who liked the book said that the title “Delicate Armor” was inappropriate. I thought it was spot on.
Editor’s note: Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.