Book Review

‘McMullen Circle’ and picks for teen readers

‘McMullen Circle’ and picks for teen readers

It’s 1969-1970, and the world is changing at a fierce pace. The civil rights movement grips America’s cultural arena, and the war in Vietnam is raging. 

In “McMullen Circle” (Regal House Publishing, 2022, 170 pages), Heather Newton revives that time in our nation’s history, now 50 years in the past, by whisking readers off to the hills of North Georgia and a small town, Tonola Falls, which is also the home of the McMullen Boarding School. Here we quickly meet Richard Pierce, the school’s headmaster, who is married to Sarah, a student he met in his teaching days in a two-year women’s college in Pennsylvania. Their daughter is Lorna, a sometimes dreamy but creative adolescent who spends much of her time with her best friend Chase Robbins and Edwina Pickens, the daughter of the school’s cafeteria manager. 

“McMullen Circle” — the title comes from the circular street ringing the school — is a novel composed of stories linking faculty members and townspeople. Like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, which was a cycle of stories revolving around that town and a few main characters, McMullen Circle isn’t a typical novel with one or two main protagonists and a direct plot line. Lorna and her parents figure prominently in the action, but so do some other characters: a school librarian who cares for her aging partner, Margaret, who taught voice to the students and led the choir but has suffered a stroke, Edwina and her parents, a World War II B-17 tail gunner, Danny, who suffers nightmares from the war and whose alcoholism as driven him to become a permanent resident of a halfway house, and others. 

All of Newton’s main characters struggle with challenges and unexpected obstacles. Disowned by her father and physically and psychologically battered by her alcoholic husband, a failed musician, Margaret takes a leap of faith by committing herself to the care and love of Evelyn. Richard Pierce, who swore an oath to himself at Lorna’s birth that he would never embarrass her, as his own father had so often embarrassed him, discovers this rule of parenting can wind up in a dead end. The young Lorna finds herself part of the battleground between her mom and dad, and tries in her own way to keep the family peace. 

Of all the people in “McMullan Circle,” Sarah Pierce most interested me, which is somewhat strange given that for the most part I found little to like in her. As a college student, she purposefully seduced Richard, but when we meet her in the novel’s first pages, she’s having an affair with one of the school’s teachers, a man whom she finds intolerable except as a tool for tormenting her husband. She seems bent on humiliating Richard, against whom the worst charge that might be brought is his dullness. She appears at a school function dressed “in a midriff top that showed her navel and jeans with a hole in one knee so big it was a wonder the pants leg hadn’t fallen off.” She openly flirts with her lover, constantly mocks her husband, and like so many people then and now, seems sickeningly self-absorbed. Yet it is Sarah who fights back against racial prejudice in the town, though here again we may wonder whether she does so to defend a righteous cause or to call attention to herself, and it is Sarah who saves her daughter from a possible attacker in the woods. 

Setting Sarah aside, “McMullen Circle” eventually leave readers with a sense of hope, depicting as it does ordinary people faced with some rough times and circumstances who rise up to meet these challenges and do their best to overcome obstacles. 

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Winter is here, which usually means more time spent indoors and which can become that season when we spend some of our hours every week, often in the evening, reading a book. Most of us know what sort of literature we enjoy, head for the library or the local bookstore, and find our print-and-paper pleasures in those establishments. Parents of toddlers and elementary school age children generally know as well the books they’d like to pick up for their kids, often collections of classic fairy tales for the little ones or books like the Nancy Drew series or The Chronicles of Narnia for the older crew. 

Helping teens select good books can be a tougher proposition, as evidenced by the friends and family members who ask me for recommendations for this age group. Often the questions catches me off guard, and I end up lamely suggesting a few titles or draw a blank. 

But here are two resources I now recommend for parents and teens wishing to read books that are both exciting and that convey strong values. 

The first is a list at Goodreads titled Best (Classic) Books for Teens. Google ‘Goodreads Best Classic Books for Teens,’ and it pops up right away. This list includes works from “Romeo and Juliet” to “Animal Farm,” from “The Old Man and the Sea” to “The Giver.”

Hard-copy guides can also be a great resource for parents looking for the best in books for their young people. Here I’d highly recommend “Honey for a Teen’s Heart” by Gladys Hunt and Barbara Hampton. Like Hunt’s earlier book for younger readers, “Honey for a Child’s Heart,” this guide for parents and teens offers hundreds of recommendations, inspirational passages on the value of reading, and advice on how to select good books. 

Enjoy.

(Jeff Minick reviews books and has written four of his own: two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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