1.25.2016

A Tiny Piece of Sky by Shawn K. Stout, 319pp, RL 4


A Tiny Piece of Sky by Shawn K. Stout is set in Hagerstown, Maryland in 1939 at the start of summer. I love a great historical fiction novel and Stout delivers a story that is filled with interesting people, places and events with an omniscient narrator and direct addresses to the reader sprinkled judiciously throughout. While the climax of  A Tiny Piece of Sky wasn't quite as dramatic as I had anticipated, it didn't make it any less memorable or enjoyable.

Frankie Baum is the youngest of three sisters with an impressive scab collection that she is hoping to expand over the long, hot summer months. Joan, the second sister, is headed out to Aunt Dottie's farm for the summer and Elizabeth, the oldest, always has her nose in a book. It's up to Frankie to tend to their pony and former rodeo star, Dixie, and hook her up to the cart and take her out for a spin. But, before Frankie can even settle into missing her sister, Mr. Baum has a surprise for the family that will keep them all very busy. He has bought a long vacant, alpine-style (just like Bavaria, where Hermann's parents were from) restaurant on the "edge of Jonathan Street -the three blocks in Hagerstown that are an historically African American neighborhood and the site of the first African American churches, city homes, and businesses in Washington County," as Stout writes in her Author's Note.

Mr. Baum is a hardworking optimist with big ideas for Baum's Restaurant and Tavern, which is heralded as an "Eating Place of  Wide Renown" on the fancy color menus he has printed up. Despite this, there are bumps along the way. The manager Mr. Baum has hired, Mr. Stannum, is harsh with the mostly African American kitchen staff and angered by Mr. Baum's refusal to put a second, segregated bathroom in the kitchen. He is even more upset when he learns that Mr. Baum plans a practice-run-pre-opening party for the whole staff and their families on July Fourth. Add to this the fact that Mr. Sullen Waterford Price, Esquire, is about to end his term as the President of the Hagerstown Chamber of Commerce and has plans to segue into the role of Mayor of Hagerstown. Price has run the Chamber of Commerce with a menacing, prejudicial hand that includes after hours visits to new businesses in town to dig up personal information about owners.

When Mr. Baum, who drives a 1937 Studebaker Dictator, doesn't bend to Price's strong arming, Price begins spreading rumors that Baum is a Nazi sympathizer and possibly even a German spy. This is fueled even further by a flyer, written in German, that Mr. Stannum steals from Mr. Baum's office and hands over to Price. Frankie, working in the kitchen, overhears just enough of these dark rumblings to begin to worry and doubt. She starts poking around at home and tailing Mr. Stannum, all the while being bullied by Leroy Price, who parrots his father's words. The night of the pre-opening family party, things come to a head - and fall apart - as waitresses call in sick, the band backs out, family friends don't show up - and Frankie runs away, sort of. She ends up in the town square where the Fourth of July festivities are underway and there she sees the "sick" waitresses, the band that bailed on Baum's playing and fliers telling the townspeople to boycott "German Businesses!" And it's there that Mr. Baum, looking for Frankie, collapses.

A Tiny Piece of Sky feels like it loses a bit of momentum at this point, but ends on a positive note, especially when you read the Author's Note and learn that Stout's grandparents and their restaurant in Hagerstown were the models for the Baum family. In fact, the press kit includes letter of support written to Stout's grandfather, copied almost verbatim in this book. I think I was hoping to see all the pieces of this story fit together with more assertion and deeper meaning than what Stout delivered. In spite of Frankie's mother's nervousness (and despite the fact that she worked in a restaurant since she dropped out of school in sixth grade to help support her family) Baum's reopens. Mr. Stannum, thanks to a secret nudge from Frankie, tries to right his wrong. And a family secret (a secret family) is revealed. All these add up and, as I said, make for a sweet ending. But my heartstrings weren't tugged and there wasn't quite the catharsis - or the downfall of Price - that I craved. Frankie Baum is a wonderful character, but I would have liked to see her develop more over the course of the story, especially after she takes a misguided outing with Dixie and ends up in the African American part of town. The episodes in A Tiny Piece of Sky remind me of the material in the press kit - more like snapshots, or vignettes, loosely tied together. As such, they are lovely and make for a very enjoyable read.

Source: Review Copy



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