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Nina Revoyr, author of The Necessary Hunger, The Age of Dreaming, and Southland (Lambda Literary Award, 2003), chronicles the struggles of a young bi-racial girl growing up in small-town Wisconsin.
Michelle LeBeau, the daughter of a white American man and a Japanese woman, is the protagonist and narrator of Wingshooters (24th Lambda Literary Award finalist). Arriving in 1974, as an eight-year-old, to the all-white town of Deerhorn, Wisconsin, Michelle is barely tolerated because of her difference. Wingshooters covers some heavy subject matter—hatred, child abuse, racism, misogyny—yet the rural setting remains bucolic and nostalgic, a small town filled with natural beauty. These kinds of contradictions abound throughout: Michelle’s racist grandfather dotes on her, but her classmates bully and harass her and most of the townspeople barely tolerate her.
Michelle is a quiet observer and Revoyr’s choice of narration—that of the protagonist looking back on events that happened long ago—works well here; as a child Michelle is wise and naïve, as an adult, she does not pretend to understand or make excuses for what she remembers. Wingshooters unfolds at a slow pace. There are moments when the plot feels too slow, meticulously cataloguing the characters and the small details and observations of a young child. So it is almost without warning that the central brutal act of the story comes into view. This event forever alters Michelle and her family and it is written with precision, in measured, sure prose. Looking back, one sees the slow beginning as necessary to the denouement of the story—the plot isn’t meant to race, it isn’t meant to thrill. It is meant to catalog a single year in a young girl’s life: a year that changes her, and a year in which the world around her is changing at break-neck speed.
Wingshooters is constantly hinting at, without overtly stating—and this is nicely done—the shifting social and cultural mores of rural America in the mid-1970s. Deerhorn,Wisconsin, is an insular town that hasn’t seen much change—Michelle becomes its first non-white resident. When a young black couple moves to town—the woman a doctor working in a new clinic for the poor, her husband a substitute teacher—the town’s fragile balance is completely overturned. The unspoken background of the book is a country on the verge, or in the midst of, upheaval. The struggles of racial equality, women’s rights, children’s rights, the anti-war movement, all edge into this novel. This is not a cosmopolitan novel, though the narrator is a grown woman now living in Los Angeles, and it does not seek to provide social commentary on small-town life and the bigotry so often found there. The effect of this is very powerful, far more powerful than if the narration had tried to explain the events or make sense of them. Instead, the reader is allowed to slip into the novel, and experience the events as they unfold, without being told how to process them. Any judgments you come away with will be your own.
Beneath the surface, this is a novel of identity. A quiet undercurrent of sexuality laces through the more overt struggles of the narrator—an absent mother and untrustworthy father, and more importantly, her bi-racial background in a town that refuses to accept her, the thing that sets her apart and at a unique vantage point in telling this story. She, as a child and as the older narrator, both understands and does not understand the tragic events that unfold the year she lives with her grandparents in Deerhorn. Like so many of us examining our pasts, she holds each moment in front of her and considers it. Toward the end of the book, she astutely remarks, “The hardest thing about suffering a terrible loss is that you usually survive it.” This kind of honesty runs through the entire novel.
Wingshooters is, at its core, a testament to those who survive.
By Nina Revoyr
Paperback, 9781936070718, 256p pp.