Growing up in southeastern Ohio, I was surrounded by rednecks. Not Jeff Foxworthy, backwoods-hick rednecks, but legitimate, honest-to-God rednecks who wore tight Wrangler jeans to school, belonged to FFA and 4H, and skipped school on the first day of deer season. That was kind of the norm, and rednecks weren’t looked down upon – they often mixed well with the popular kids. However, we had a derogatory term for people who were considered too low-class to even be a redneck and it was the ultimate insult when I was in elementary and middle school – we called them “rutters.” I have no idea where the term came from, and I had no idea until I went to college that no one outside of my area used the term. It’s a variation, I suppose, of being called white trash.
If Jack Witcher had gone to my elementary school, he probably would have been called a rutter.
In small-town Virginia in the late 60s, the Witchers are simply considered white trash. There’s rusted cars and broken toilets in their front yard. Pop can’t hold a job and challenges the other fathers in the neighborhood to fistfights over dogs. Mom is ugly and works as a cashier at the grocery store. The oldest son, Stan, is quickly following in his father’s footsteps – he’s a bully for no other reason than he doesn’t know any other way to defend himself. Twelve-year old Jack, though, is different. He’s smart, he’s thoughtful, and he just wants to fit in. He’s a good kid judged by his unfortunate lineage.
Jack’s only real friend is Mr. Gladstein, the town’s lone Jew who owns a jewelry store and protests segregation by moving into a rough black neighborhood. Mr. Gladstein helps Jack out by giving him a ring to woo Myra Joyner and encouraging the boy to believe in himself. Jack tries to take Gladstein’s advice, but his social status gets in the way – Myra likes Jack but won’t be his girlfriend because of his last name.
Things go from bad to worse for Jack when Myra’s brother, Gaylord, goes missing and the cloud of suspicion falls on Stan. Jack wants to believe in his brother’s innocence, but there’s a part of him that is frightened by Stan’s violent instincts and the holes in his story.
This book is so well-written, and comparisons to To Kill A Mockingbird
are much-deserved. Like Scout, Jack struggles with the loss of his innocence in the face of violence and injustice in his small-town environment. Like Harper Lee, Wetta has somehow managed to capture a child’s innocence with such a genuine voice. There’s something about Jack, though, that is much more pathetic than Scout. He is a boy so punished by his circumstances, who desperately wants to understand things that are bigger than him. He’s smart and he’s perceptive, but he’s still a kid and Wetta never seems to forget that. Even when he’s using vocabulary beyond a normal twelve-year old’s lexicon, the reader is reminded that, while Jack sees tension and he wants to be able to explain it, the situation is often just beyond his ability to do so.
My only complaint about this book is the pacing. There's a slow build-up, then it's rushed as soon as we hit the climax - sort of as if Wetta just wanted to be done and couldn't figure out how to finish it. The result is less than fully satisfying, but only slightly so. There are so many levels to this book, so many ideas that are explored – class, race, faith, morals, justice, young love, obligation to family vs. obligation to community – and all of the plotlines carefully reflect these themes. The more I think about it, the more I fall in love with it. This is a book that I wholeheartedly recommend to everyone.