Review: Wish you well by David Baldacci
What comes to your mind when you read the name“David Baldacci“ on a book cover? Thrillers? Murder mysteries? Corrupt secret service agents? Well, you will be astonished by this amazing, and very different novel…
After a car crash on the way back from a family outing, 12-year-old Lou and 7-year-old Oz are left without parents: their father is dead, their mother is in a persistent vegetative state. The only family they have left is their great-grandmother, Louisa Mae Cardinal who runs a little farm in the mountains of South West Virginia. Thus Lou and Oz are sent to a place they have never been to before, a place high up in the mountains without electricity and running water. A place that couldn‘t be more different from the vibrant New York City life they are used to. And yet it is to become the place they call their home, the place they will be fighting for with all their might. Although life is hard, harder than they could ever have imagined. Breakfast is at 5, then milking, walking to the village school, walking back home, farm work till sunset followed by housework with a paraffin lamp. Every day.
Time seems to have stopped, the 1940s have never arrived in the mountains. Maybe they broke down on one of the narrow, unsealed roads on the slopes, just like the cars do. The conditions are archaic, every day is a struggle of surviving, every day means to go to the limits of one‘s capacity. On the other hand, the mountains are beautiful, sometimes even magical.
But their situation takes on threatening dimensions when natural gas is discovered on Louisa‘s land. She refuses to sell, as a result someone sets fire to their barn. Strong, uncompromising Louisa, their tower of strength, suffers a stroke as she sees the flames ruining the very basis of their livelihood.
The protagonist is Lou, named after her great-grandmother but determined to be called by this abbreviation only. She is strong, brave, proud. She adored her father, she enjoyed living in New York. The accident turned her life upside down. But Lou can‘t give up, she is all her brother has. She feels responsible for him, and anyway, giving up is not really her thing. Lou shoulders the responsibility for both of them and Oz, a little boy with a teddy bear, follows her lead. When Lou fights a boy who insults them, Oz quietly stands back. When Lou stands up to their aggressive neighbour, Oz hides behind her back. And whereas Lou, the realist, tells him what the doctors have said about probability, Oz never ceases to believe in their mother‘s recovery. His unshakable belief is his greatest strength.
In the course of the story Oz grows more confident, when they first arrive he is the “cowardly lion“ (p.398 l.17) ; in the end he stands up in the crowded court and yells at the judge in order to defend his great-grandmother.
It is not hard to identify with Lou. Her character is as realistic as it is truly likeable, with both strengths and weaknesses. She is only 13, but she seems a lot older. Maybe in the mountains they all have to be. Even little Oz seems grown up at times. Life in the mountains is as strange to Lou as it is to the reader, which makes it easier to identify with the main characters and comprehend this way of life.
The other characters are very complex as well. There‘s Diamond, Lou‘s best friend, an illiterate but cheerful orphan who knows everything he needs to survive. And there‘s Cotton, Louisa‘s lawyer friend, who is struggling with his place in life.
The story is told in chronological order over a period of roughly one year, followed by an epilogue from Lou‘s point of view as an adult. It is told by an omniscient narrator, but mostly from Lou‘s perspective. Part of this is used in order to make certain moments more dramatic. For instance the narrator tells what happens just after Lou has turned her back and has therefore missed a crucial opportunity that could have saved her mother.
The book is a coming of age story, and a story about friendship and hope. About family and home. About surviving. About strength of will. About right and wrong. And about what is important in life. It shows what hope can do; and also that the world isn‘t simply black and white. The townspeople who try to force Louisa to sell her land are close to starving, the gas company settling in the town is their only hope.
Lou sums up her own message when she says in the epilogue: “But as I learned on this Virginia mountain, so long as one never loses faith, it is impossible to ever truly be alone.“ (p.399 ll.12)
The plot is simple and easy to follow, but it is a very realistic, very moving story “of happiness and wonder. Of pain and fear. Of survival and triumph. Of the land and its people.“ (p.399 ll.6)
There not much suspense, no big adventure, no exciting turning point. But what is truly amazing about the novel is the way the land and its people are presented. It really is a homage to the Virginia mountains and their people. Furthermore, the characters with all their little and their big struggles could be real people the author knew himself. They seem to have just stepped from their mountain peak onto the paper pages.
All in all it is a beautiful, but calm story, very nicely told. It is truly recommendable for those, who like a quiet book with complex characters, a story that is realistic rather than thrilling or kitschy in any way. And so is the end of the book, neither the classical “happy ending“ nor something to leave you in tears. Just – realistic.
It is a novel with a striking air of authenticity – maybe also because the author used his own family history in it.
David Baldacci: Wish You Well. Petersen Taschenbücher, 2002.