Grade 6-9–Harlan Q, 14, lives and works with the local funeral director and his wife because his evangelical preacher father, Harlan P, has evicted him for religious doubts. There he meets his grandfather, Harlan O, for the first time. The fact that the man is dead doesn't stop him from wanting to know more about his relative. The teen convinces his father to drive the body to Las Vegas to collect an inheritance, and thus the two have the opportunity to develop a relationship and learn something about the man who has been lost to them for 20 years. The premise is interesting, but not much happens as the two travel, have car troubles, take on an aspiring actor who is more interesting than either Harlan, and find themselves in a city that fascinates the younger Harlan as much as it horrifies the elder. The characters are not fully developed except for the former and some barely seem to have a face or voice, like his mother. As Harlan Q learns about his grandfather through the people who knew and loved him, he discovers a compassionate and intelligent man, but Harlan P never does accept him. Harlan Q knows a bit more about his father at story's end, but it's not clear what lessons are learned by either of them as they begin their ride home together.–Susan Oliver, Tampa-Hillsborough Public Library System, FL
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Gr. 8-11. To escape his father, a fire-and-brimstone preacher, 14-year-old Harlan takes a live-in apprenticeship at a local funeral parlor. Then his grandfather, whom Harlan has never met, dies, and the body, prepared by Harlan's boss, must be shipped back to Las Vegas. Harlan miraculously convinces his father to drive from their small southern town to the "sinful city" to collect their inheritance and deliver the body. An aspiring young actor hitches a ride, and his Buddhist-influenced observations help move Harlan and his father toward mutual understanding. In her strong debut, set during the late 1960s (or early 1970s), Hemphill strikes a confident balance between deep heartache and sharply irreverent humor. Harlan's folksy voice narrates ("I wanted to go like an old dog with a small bladder," he says about the trip), and tension produced by his thoughts of running away and his run-ins with shady characters move the story swiftly along. Many teens will see their own questions about faith, worship, and independence in Harlan's heart-twisting feelings: "How could God love a screw-up [sic] like me?" Gillian Engberg
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