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Carolina Harmony    by Marilyn Taylor McDowell Amazon.com order for
Carolina Harmony
by Marilyn Taylor McDowell
Order:  USA  Can
Delacorte, 2009 (2009)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Marilyn Taylor McDowell's debut novel is set in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina in the 1960s. It brings to life nine-year old Carolina (Campbell) Harmony, facing the tragic loss of her parents and baby brother in a car accident. Carolina was in a classroom when called to the principal's office and told of their deaths.

Her beloved Auntie Shen has known Carolina since she was a baby; this surrogate grandmother assisted in her birth. Carolina is well-cared for and much loved. Shen's outlook on life is summed up in her statement: 'modern ways are moving in and threatening to destroy the mountain traditions ... it used to be that mountain folks helped each other out, plain and simple. Now there are so many rules and laws, everything was getting ruined'. At the time she needs her most, Carolina's friend Mattie moves away. But that summer Mattie comes to stay with her Aunt Ruby, who lives shy of yards away from Auntie Shen. They've been best buds since Mattie arrived at school. Carolina never understood why people acted as if there was 'a right ... and a wrong skin color'. Time spent with Auntie Shen continues to be a blessing as they sell homemade jellies, and Carolina learns of her Gaelic ancestors from Scotland.

One day, Carolina finds Auntie Shen lying crumpled in the grass a stroke, they say. Determined to stay at Auntie's house until she returns from the hospital, Carolina refuses help. But within a few days one of the church women arrives with the Sheriff, forcing Carolina to leave Shen's property. Unhappy in the home of Reverend and Mrs. Sanctem, Carolina runs away. Just when she thinks, 'Nowhere to go, no one to ask for help', Miss Ruby takes her in. It's not long, however, before the Sheriff arrives to take Carolina away from Miss Ruby's home. Carolina is placed in foster care with other children at the home of Miss Lily Jean and her husband Uncle Freddie, both inattentive and uncaring. At a Fourth of July picnic celebration, Caroline runs away, swimming across a body of water to the opposite shore. She makes her way through wooded areas. Attempting to keep warm, she discovers moonshiners at work, and is frightened by haints.

But sometimes life takes a surprising turn. Carolina is taken in by the owners of Harmony Farm, Miss Latah, Uncle Ray, and their son Lucas. Carolina hesitates about sharing her past and feels like she is carrying around 'basketful of secrets'. She tells made-up stories as convincingly as she can, answering questions, but at times seeing doubt in her hosts' eyes and actions. In a reflection of a mirror, Carolina sees herself covered with dust and soot, with disheveled hair, but there is something else - 'It was as if she was looking at someone she didn't know ... It was as if she was missing.' Coincidentally, a foster home friend arrives in the town. Russell promises not to tell anyone that she is a runaway. His new caretaker, mean and ornery Mr. Sims, is hired to assist Uncle Ray with sheep shearing. Carolina is blamed for Russell's pranks, and sworn to secrecy by Mr. Sims about his drinking and smoking on the premises. Then a tragic event frightens Carolina, causing her to run away again.

McDowell carves a large niche with her debut novel, as readers follow a young girl's heartache, joys, and fears, along with humor (e.g. chasing three-hundred pounds of 'snorting flesh' when a loose sow eat its way through the garden). Nostalgia is abundant in the author's representation of square dancing at the Grange Hall; the beauty of mountain sites; the smell of fresh-mown hay; the feel of the sun; and the scents and sensations of each day. Carolina Harmony is a story that sneaks its way into your heart and soul, as it creeps into your mind and gets under your skin. Marilyn Taylor McDowell, a past recipient of Connecticut's Tassy Walden Award: New Voices in Children's Literature, has been bringing children and books together for over twenty-five years as librarian, storyteller, teacher, and proprietor of a children's bookshop.

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