Well, folks, I do expect that Ms. Lois Lowry has never actually met anyone from West Virginia. Because if she did, she just might realize that not all West Virginians speak like uneducated hillbillies. This book is full of West Virginia’isms that some WVers might find downright offensive. And so’s you can get a feel for what it’s like reading Rabble Starkey, I do believe I’m going to write my whole post in Rabble’s hillbilly voice.
Rabble Starkey is a twelve year old girl living in Highriver West Virginia. She lives with her mother, Sweet-Ho. Yes sir, I just said Rabble’s mama is named Sweet-Ho, short for Sweet Hosana. See, she was named for a hymn! Sweet-Ho went off and married Ginger Starkey when she was only thirteen and Ginger was right about twenty. By the time Sweet-Ho was fourteen, she had an unnamed baby and a divorce. Sweet-Ho took the baby back to her mother in Collyer’s Run, WV to be raised. Sweet-Ho’s mother took one look at that little baby with her sea-green eyes and ginger colored hair and said, “Lord, Lord, trouble lies ahead for that child.” So’s she gave her a bible name, Parable. I expect y’all are thinking what I am. Parable isn’t a name from the Bible. What Sweet-Ho’s mama didn’t do is try to nab Ginger Starkey for statutory rape.
The book is told from Rabble’s POV and begins when Rabble is twelve years old. Her and Sweet-Ho are living in an apartment above a garage at the Bigelow’s house. Sweet-Ho is working as a housekeeper/baby sitter at the Bigelow’s house. Rabble is best friends with Veronica Bigelow. Veronica has a younger brother, Gunther, who at four years old is the homeliest child in all of Highriver, bar none. Mrs. Bigelow (Veronica and Gunther’s mother) has her share of troubles, in that she is just plain crazy. She don’t seem to be fit to be a mother, and so Sweet-Ho is put to the task of watching her, as well as Gunther, Veronica and Rabble.
One fall day, Veronica and Rabble take Gunther to the creek (pronounced ‘crick’, no doubt) to catch frogs. Veronica and Rabble leave Gunther for a moment to chase after the local bully, Norman Cox, who hit Gunther with a stone. But, Lord, don’t you know even worse trouble is waiting for them. As Mrs. Bigelow escapes from the house, picks up little Gunther as though he’s a baby, exposes her bosom to try to get Gunther to nurse, then holds him underwater to baptize him. Sweet-Ho comes to the rescue and Mrs. Bigelow is carted off to the crazy house.
Veronica is plain scared of her mother. Everyone seems to be concerned for Mrs. Bigelow’s mental health and shoot, Veronica seems to be the only one who believes that Mrs. Bigelow was trying to kill Gunther. Because of the chaos, Mr. Bigelow asks Sweet-Ho and Rabble to move out of the garage apartment and into the house. Rabble is finding out what it’s like to have a “real” family now. And even though she knows the Bigelow’s aren’t actually her family, she sure does like to pretend.
Rabble’s teacher introduces the class to the magic of a thesaurus and Rabble sure does love using it. Why, she even asks Sweet-Ho for one for her birthday! I expect you’ll be wanting to keep Rabble’s love of the thesaurus in mind. I just might come in handy later.
While Rabble and Veronica take Gunther trick or treating, they stop at old Millie Bellows’ house. Millie Bellows is the local grouchy, thrice-widowed nonogenarian. While her door is open, a stone comes out of nowhere and knocks Millie clean in the head. Veronica takes care of Millie, while Rabble runs after whoever threw the stone. She can’t catch him, but figures out it was Norman Cox after he drops part of his costume. Rabble keeps the costume so’s she can figure out how to blackmail Norman Cox.
Sweet-Ho asks Rabble and Veronica to be good girls and look in on Millie Bellows a few times a week, which they do. They also begin helping Millie around her house even though she don’t seem thankful for it none. They find out that Millie had a brother who died at fourteen after he fell through some thin ice showing off on a frozen pond. Norman Cox, who has a little thing for Veronica, starts helping out at Millie’s house too only to spend time with Veronica.
Do you remember what I said about the thesaurus? One day, Rabble, Veronica, Sweet-Ho and Mr. Bigelow start playing a game where one person says a word and everyone else has to name as many synonyms from the thesaurus. Turns out, Sweet-Ho is downright good at this game. She reckons it’s because she sure does love to read. Mr. Bigelow tries to encourage Sweet-Ho to get her high school equivalency and take community college classes.
It’s right when Sweet-Ho begins her college classes and the good news comes from the hospital about Mrs. Bigelow that Rabble begins to fret. She sure enjoyed pretending that her and Sweet-Ho were a part of the Bigelow family. And Rabble begins to realize that things are different and are changing and she feels powerless to stop it. Even Norman, once a bully, has started to mature and is becoming more of a polite young man. Then old Millie Bellows dies and her house gets cleaned and put on the market and Rabble really starts to lose her feeling of safety and belonging.
At the end, Mrs. Bigelow is just about ready to come home from the hospital. Sweet-Ho moves herself and Rabble to Clarksburg, so she can work toward her Bachelor’s degree because she wants to become a teacher. And Rabble decides to work on her grammar. She sure is going to miss feeling like Veronica is her sister though.
- Damn, it was actually a lot harder than I expected to write that whole post in Rabble’s hillbilly voice. And really, I know many West Virginians and I don’t know ANY who talk like that.
- Seriously, if your mother named you Sweet Hosana, then called you Sweet-Ho, would you allow her to name your child?
- Despite the hillbilliness, I like the character of Rabble. She seems pretty authentic for a twelve year old. She’s pretty average, Not shy, but definitely not bursting with self-confidence. And her temper can get the best of her sometimes. At Millie Bellow’s funeral, she finally confronts Norman Cox about being the one that hit Millie in the head with a stone. “….You were only trying to call attention to yourself. But it was stupid and show-offy. By the time she died, she thought you was a nice boy. She told me and Veronica…I’m telling you on her behalf. The newspaper said she was ninety-three years old. I hope you don’t ever forget that once you blacked the eye of a ninety-three year old lady. But at least I think you out to know she never realized it was you who done it. And before she died, she said you was a nice young man.”
- Really? Mrs. Bigelow holds her son’s head under water for a good thirty seconds and the police don’t get involved at all? I get it – mentally ill. But she fucking tried to drown her son!
- Poor Gunther. The kid can’t catch a break. Not only did his mother try to kill him. But he is homely, he’s frail and prone to illnesses like ringworm, impetigo and poison ivy. Not to mention food allergies out the wazoo.
- Veronica and Rabble have plans for the future. To buy up a mansion in town and fix it up as an orphanage. Then they’re going to hire greeting card writers (who must be super nice) to help them run the orphanage. Because guys like Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 500 Days of Summer totally seem like the type to leave their greeting card jobs and work with orphans.
- At the end, when Rabble is working on her grammar, she confesses to her mom that she’ll miss her old way of talking. Because it reminds her of being raised by her grandmother, who was ‘country.’ Sweet-Ho reassures her that her Grandmother would be proud of how she’s trying to better herself. Aw.
- Do kids who were born to teen parents always call their parents by their first names in Y.A. lit?