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With A Hammer for My Heart Hardcover – September 15, 1997
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From School Library Journal
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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A neighbor of sorts, World War II veteran Garland lives on a hill nearby her home in two old abandoned buses. He has converted one into a library of sorts; the other is a squatter's nest. She has been warned to stay away; he is an alcoholic, a loner, a hermit, but also someone Lawanda feels drawn to; she thinks she has a vision of him, a vision not at all unlike the religious ones her Mamaw experiences. What she finds in those buses is a man misunderstood in many ways; Garland was a very sharp school teacher. He used to teach young men and women at the high school she now attends. And he is worldly; he fought in the War, after all, and has seen something beyond the nearest ridges. But Lawanda scratches his boozy surface just enough to get herself in real trouble. Neither she nor the old man really do anything wrong, but in a small town, rumors hold a lot of sway. Hell, rumors hold sway in the world at large, at that rate.
We are awash in information today about PTSD and our returning soldiers; we are told to the point of indifference about the struggles of Vietnam veterans and the younger men and women returning from more recent wars. We are losing the last of our WWII vets; they are fading and gone before we have a chance to notice. But the trauma of those conflicts looms large in those men; they may have seemed to come home and carry on pretty well. But I watched as the war returned for my grandfather as he slipped into Alzheimer's. He was in a VA hospital in Hazard, KY where he was cared for with a love and understanding I will always be humbled by and thankful for. The oddest part was watching him with the other WWII vets on the dementia ward; they talked about the war as if it were still happening. Because it was.
Lyon gives a slice of understanding here in an uncomfortable, poetic form, something that makes it stick for me. A wonderful read.
Some folks say there are only a handful of stories in the world that get retold again and again in different guises. If that is so, then surely the coming-of-age story would be one of the most frequent: child meets trouble of some sort; child deals with the trouble and, in the process, grows up. What can make these stories interesting, what can keep us reading them again and again, is the nature and character of the child, and the nature and character of the trouble he or she runs into.
In With a Hammer for My Heart, that child is Lawanda, fifteen years old, growing up in a poor community in Kentucky. She wants to go to college, so she gets a job selling magazines. Her sales lead her up "the hill" to where Garland, an old WWII veteran lives in two old school buses. Garland is ostracized by the community because he drinks too much, and because he'd driven away his wife and kids. But Lawanda finds him and his bus, filled with books and old maps, interesting, and she finds herself befriending the old man.
The trouble comes in when the local community learns about Lawanda and Garland's friendship, which they neither understand nor want to tolerate. A rumor leads to an arrest, and Lawanda finds herself on a bus, headed across the state alone, looking for the one person she thinks can help her sort out the situation.
This is Lyon's first novel, though she has written more than 30 books for children and adults. It is a lovely book, full of great characters who each, while acting in what they believe is the best interest of Lawanda, alternately help and thwart her efforts to make the world right again. The cover is gorgeous, and while the typeface used in this paperback edition is distracting and odd, the story is capable of rising above that distraction to discuss ideas of hurt and healing, and the responsibilities we all have to the people we know and love.
Armchair Interviews says: Strong first novel from an established children's author.