The first time I met my grandfather, he was laid up on a porcelain prep table at the Hamilton-Johnston Funeral Home. His eyes were wide open and he had a grin on his face, but he was as dead as doornail. So begins newcomer Helen Hemphill's engaging novel, a story of love and redemption, judgment and forgiveness, life and death . . . and Las Vegas. Harlan Q. Stank, the 14-year-old protagonist, is working at the funeral home because he has left his own home after giving up on religion. This did not sit well with his father, Harlan P. Stank, the pastor of Sunnyside Savior Church. Harlan Q took up residence with the owners of the funeral home where the body of one Harlan O. Stank now rests. Got that genealogy? The middle initials are important: O is oldest, P is next and Q is the youngest. Harlan O and Harlan P have not been in touch with each other for 20 years, so it is quite a surprise when Harlan O shows up in Beans Creek, checks into the Wayfarer Motel, and ups and dies, before even so much as a phone call to his estranged son.
All the younger Stanks know is that Grandfather was worth quite a bit of cash, owned a Cadillac and lived in Las Vegas, far from boring Beans Creek. Mr. Stiletto, Grandfather's accountant, has everything in order and Harlan Q convinces the reverend that he can use the inheritance to start a radio mission, if only they could get to Las Vegas. So, they pack up the casket and start on the road trip of a lifetime.
Hemphill brings a fresh, humorous voice to her tale of travel, the big city, deception and forgiveness. Young Harlan Q, trying to leave Beans Creek behind, nearly loses himself. But in the end, he not only finds his own way, but gains insight into the mind and heart of his father. For readers who bemoan the violence and sordid storylines in many novels for teens, Hemphill's lively tale and memorable characters will be a breath of fresh air.