Mary Bayliss Pettigrew and her older brother Leo are “cut from the same cloth—six of one and half a dozen of the other.” They are growing up during the Great Depression in rural Alabama, but the 11- and 16-year-old are up to their usual shenanigans, playing tricks on neighbors and sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night.
Everything changes after Bayliss’s 12th birthday. In a tragic accident, Leo is killed. Bayliss miraculously survives, although her reality is grim. She wakes up in the hospital to find life without Leo, guilt and the nagging feeling that she has been spared for a special purpose from God. It’s a heavy burden for any 12-year-old girl, and Bayliss deals with the weight in an unusual way: she decides to become a nun. What ensues is alternately heartbreaking and funny, since we know that Bayliss is better suited for wearing overalls than a habit (the better for “traipsing through the jungles of Africa,” which is what she really longs to do).
Sandra Forrester, who is also the author of the Beatrice Bailey Magical Adventure series, is adept at portraying life after a tragedy—when supper must be made, the clothes washed, sadness confronted. It is a strange and confusing time, and Forrester characterizes each member of the healing Pettigrew family with depth and realistic imperfection. There is Bayliss’ dad, who is kind but fearful; her sister Kathleen, who possesses quiet strength; grandmother Tommie Dora, who is firm but filled with goodness. Each personality becomes richer and more likeable as the novel progresses.
Just when we think that the Pettigrews have faced enough hardship, there is a twist. The family takes in two orphan girls: precious five-year-old Isabel and steely eight-year-old Gwen. Bayliss reacts to this development with anger—she may be on the road to piety, but she refuses to replace her brother. Then, something cracks. Readers young and old will sympathize as Bayliss struggles with doubt and redemption.
Though it portrays pain, Forrester’s novel is enlivened by Bayliss’ snappy narration and the amusing, colloquial retorts by her family members. The Pettigrews will be an inspiration to any person who has dealt with loss.
Eliza Borné writes from Nashville.