The Girl from Charnelle
It is New Year’s Eve, 1959. Almost 16-year-old Laura Tate, her father, and her three brothers have been trying to make a life for themselves since their mother left them without explanation the previous year. At midnight, Laura receives a kiss from John Letig, her father’s friend, a married man twice her age. It’s a simple New Year’s kiss just outside the Armory, where the whole community is kissing to welcome in the New Year. Then he kisses her again, slowly and passionately. Laura knew it was dangerous to kiss like this, but she finds it exciting. Mr. Letig is an attractive man, and she’s thrilled to be noticed by him. From this first night of 1960, Laura starts living a secret life apart from her friends and family, absorbed in her attraction to this older man, and his attraction to her.
Cook effectively immerses his audience in the 1960s Texas Panhandle, describing the effect of historical events on his characters and using elements of the terrain to enhance his story: the female characters’ interest in all things Jackie, the frustration of Texans when the young Jack Kennedy is running for president instead of Texas’ own LBJ, and the relief of swimming in the cool waters of Lake Meredith. The book is fast-paced for an introspective novel, and the complex feelings of the characters make it hard to put down. It is difficult to avoid the natural discomfort felt when a 30-year-old man is having an affair with a minor, but this discomfort enhances the reader’s empathy for the main character. The whole is a poignant story of a young woman who must grow up too quickly. This first novel is a literary work of art.