The Collins girls are loud, loud, LOUD. Kentucky Collins is 14, the oldest and most popular. Virginia Collins is 12 and the prettiest. Georgia is 11 and the smartest. And Carolina is the 10-year-old runt of a narrator who feels there is nothing special about her. Mama doesn't have a chance against the four of them, not without Daddy, who left when Carolina was two. It's 1955, and the Collins family lives in the Kentucky hills in a small house that has electricity when the family can afford to pay the bills. A good time out is a trip to town to get permanents or see a James Dean movie. Into their lives comes Winston Churchill Birch, nicknamed Tadpole after the time he took a dare and swallowed a tadpole, only to throw it up later and return it still alive to the creek. Tadpole, now Tad, has run away from the abusive relatives raising him and has come to live with the Collinses. He sings, plays guitar, rallies the neighbors for social events and manages to get free passes for the carnival.
There is a lot going on in this laid-back, easy-feeling story. Characters "worsh" their clothes, "borry" a fiddle and "hear tell" the Breaks of the Cumberland is a wild and beautiful place with a view "you couldn't beat with a stick." These folks are well-drawn people who go through believable changes and learn important lessons about family, place, dreams, child abuse and dealing with the hard times life sometimes delivers.
White, the author of the Newbery Honor-winning Belle Prater's Boy, writes warmly and sensitively about this Kentucky hill family that owns so little, yet has so much. Her tone is pitch-perfect as she portrays Carolina coming into her own and finding what makes her special. She has noticed her knack for harmony the layers of music, the notes running below the melody, as Tad explains to her and by the end of the novel, Carolina knows who she is in her family: She's the talented one.
Dean Schneider is a middle school English teacher in Nashville.