During the Great Depression in 1935, riding the rails and standing in breadlines was part of daily life. Kerry Chaput’s main character, Magnolia Parker, is consumed with hate and fear as she lives to protect her brothers, seven-year-old “cute as a bug” Johnny and tender-hearted twelve-year-old Oscar. Magnolia’s determination not to fail her brothers is fueled by her father’s abandonment, the accidental death of two-year-old Emily, and ultimately the death of her mother.
Chaput’s prose boils over with Magnolia’s sense of anger, drenching her with determination. After Chaput’s eloquent foreshadowing of the family being splintered apart, Magnolia gains the strength and fortitude to search for her brothers, wondering if finding them will make her worthy. Penniless, overwhelmed with disappointment, and desperate, Magnolia finds work as a maid at the Pilot Butte Inn. A life-changing conversation with Eleanor Roosevelt leaves Magnolia finally feeling seen by Eleanor’s discerning heart and later a promise to help find the boys.
Readers ride the rails from Oregon to Georgia with teens Magnolia, Hop, an Italian migrant worker, and Red, a traumatized runaway. Always searching for clues to trust each other, the teens’ pact and Eleanor’s promise to help increases their resolve to find the brothers. Chaput’s narrative is packed with harrowing, gut-wrenching adventure and encrusted with pearls of wisdom Magnolia gathers from Eleanor’s MyTime column and newspaper articles. “Meet each struggle one at a time” jump-starts Magnolia’s chase to find the First Lady. Chaput emboldens her characters with optimism, emotional intelligence, and wisdom gained over a lifetime.
The core theme in Kerry Chaput’s Chasing Eleanor is learning that forgiveness is a gift to yourself. Chaput’s novel, a love letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, reflects that “learning to love is an education in itself.” Highly recommended.