In his first novel, What's Eating Gilbert Grape
, author Peter Hedges constructed a coming-of-age-in-Iowa tale around his 24-year-old title character. In An Ocean in Iowa
, Hedges's second novel, he returns once again to both Iowa and the theme of growing up, but this time his hero's age is in the single digits and the issues he faces have less to do with figuring out the rest of his life than making it to his next birthday. Seven-year-old Scotty Ocean lives a middle-class life in Des Moines with his strict father, a judge, his alcoholic mother, a failed artist, and his two older sisters. "Seven is going to be my year," he announces at the beginning of the novel, but when his mother abandons the family shortly after his birthday, Scotty's life begins to fall apart. He blames himself for her leaving and determines to be better. When that doesn't bring her back, he starts acting out at school, and finally embarks on a drastic course of action in order to remain seven forever. Even as he traces Scotty's disintegration, Hedges also follows his absent mother's alcoholic despair and his rigid father's increasingly desperate attempts to maintain control. Dark as the novel's themes are, the writing is leavened by considerable humor and a remarkable eye for detail.
By setting his novel in 1969, Hedges is able to draw on the considerable turmoil of the times as the Vietnam war, the women's movement, and fundamental changes in the family changed the fabric of American life--even in the Midwest. Peter Hedges has undertaken a real challenge in writing a convincing and interesting story about a year in the life of a young child; with An Ocean in Iowa he has largely succeeded.
What can you say about a seven-year-old whose mother leaves? It's 1969, and Scotty Ocean thinks that seven will be his year. He does the seven dance for his mother, who smokes and drinks and paints, all too much. But she abandons the family and her art, tries unsuccessfully to abandon alcohol. Scotty's two older sisters, and his rigid father the judge, find different ways of coping, and they tentatively reach toward family life. Scotty, however, in second grade with a strong teacher and a new neighbor with lots of toys and a dad back from Vietnam, is obsessed with his mother's absence, and everything in his life centers on his search for her. Hedges, the author of What's Eating Gilbert Grape?
(1991), has crammed the novel full of small, note-perfect '60s references--lunch boxes, television shows, commercials (although no one said "big whoop" in 1969, least of all a seven-year-old). There are funny bits, but this is an achingly sad story, and no one comes out all right in the end. GraceAnne A. DeCandido