For decades Vernon Culligan, a Vietnam veteran with a snarl meaner than a coon dog's, had done a fine job keeping people off of his property. But to 12-year-old Gabe, Vernon was not just his scrappy uncle, he was Gabe's last hope for a place to call home after years of moving from one foster home to another. So the day Gabe comes home and finds his uncle dead on the floor, he does what a typical kid might do in a crisis nothing. He calls no one. And nobody notices . . . well, almost nobody.

Audrey Shafer's first novel, The Mailbox, hooks the reader quickly and keeps our attention riveted until the very last page. Shafer, an anesthesiologist at a veterans hospital and the mother of two teenagers, weaves a remarkable story clearly influenced by her deep understanding of the characters involved.

For a while, Gabe survives just fine all alone in Vernon's house, thanks to a couple of white lies, forged school forms and a few important life skills his uncle taught him. But one day, he discovers that his uncle's body is gone and there's a note inside the rickety old mailbox: I have a secret. Do not be afraid.

And so begins the cryptic correspondence between Gabe and his mysterious confidant, who attempts to fill a young boy's loneliness with a stream of messages and an obedient dog named Guppy. As the season passes, Gabe finally begins to feel loved and needed, ignoring the fact that Guppy isn't really his to keep.

Eventually Gabe's world becomes tangled and complicated. His secret explodes into the local and national news, where more of Gabe's past comes to light. But more importantly, for the first time, Gabe's future begins to feel secure, thanks to some understanding teachers and caring friends who are there for him when the puzzle pieces finally click together.

What happens to Guppy, the dog who wags itself into Gabe's heart? For that answer and some unexpected twists, grab a tissue for the last few chapters. Then enjoy the lingering memories of Shafer's characters, who will stay with you for a long, long time.

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