The Canning Season, by Polly Horvath, was the 2003 National Book Award winner for Young People’s Literature. I had no idea what the book would be about, but I picked it for the Bonus Round simply because I liked the cover. (I love that bear messing up the title.)
The book’s prologue begins: “Ratchet Clark lived with her mother, Henriette, in a small, gloomy sub-basement apartment in Pensacola, Florida.”
Henriette tells Ratchet the story of how her name came to be. (It had to do with Ratchet’s father’s odd sense of humor, a fight, and a workman’s tool left on the windowsill of the hospital room.)
The prologue, and Henriette’s story, concludes with: “‘While he’s gone, a woman comes in for the birth certificate information and I grab the form and fill out Ratchet! Ratchet! in the space for the first and middle names, and that’s how you became Ratchet Ratchet Clark. Oh, and by the way, you’re going to Maine tonight.’”
Ratchet is sent to spend the summer with her 91-year-old, eccentric great-aunts, Tilly and Penpen Menuto – twins who had lived their entire lives together – on a farm in some remote part of Maine where all the towns begin with “D”. On the way to the train station, Henriette realizes that she’d left Ratchet’s suitcase at home. So, Ratchet arrives in Maine with nothing but the clothes she’s wearing.
Penpen and Tilly live in a once-lavish mansion surrounded by an unusually large number of bears. They run a blueberry business, pick up their mail at the Post Office once every six months, have a phone which receives calls but can’t call out, and they entertain Ratchet with bizarre stories of the family and town folk. Ratchet helps out on the farm, learns to swim, and does her best to hide That Thing on her shoulder.
One day, a teenage girl, about Ratchet’s age, named Harper, is dropped off at the house because her aunt mistook the large Menuto house for the orphanage up the road. Tilly and Penpen take her in without complaint. Penpen is a Buddhist, and belives in compassion.
Harper is an insensitive, rude girl, who takes a long time to figure out that she’s not in an orphanage. She thinks nothing of pointing out That Thing on Ratchet’s shoulder.
Ratchet, meanwhile, is shy and quiet.
The girls spend the summer with Tilly and Penpen. The canning season arrives. Life goes on in unexpected ways.
This is a character-driven novel. It consists mainly of people sitting around telling stories, and that works – it works very well. It is filled with colorful descriptive language and expressions, like the twins describing themselves as being “as different as chalk and cheese”.
I absolutely loved this book. It was laugh out loud funny, and charming, and touching, and insightful. (I’m beginning to figure out that I have a fondness for young adult novels.)
- A National Book Award winner