Wingshootersby Maggie Hill
(Akashic Books, 2011)
Much of Wingshooters is told from the flat, stunned voice of a child/woman looking back at a time of life when her America disappoints, over and over and over. It is more than compellingly told—it is hypnotic. We are, figuratively, sitting on a straight-backed kitchen chair, pinned to this narrative with no adornment, not even a checked tablecloth to fancy things up. It’s a straight shot. There may be echoes of Japanese, and a whiff of a future L.A., but the story takes place in the cold winter of our country’s discontented middle.
The novel’s narrator, Michelle, is nine years old when she’s left at her strange and foreign paternal grandparents’ home to live. She’s the child of a Japanese mother and a Caucasian father. In today’s world, she’d just be another kid in class. In 1974, in Deerhorn, Wisconsin, she’s a pariah. The author writes, “People glared and sometimes swore at me when I passed them on the sidewalk. No one welcomed me at school or at church. Older boys used me for target practice when I rode around town on my bike, most often throwing apples, but sometimes rocks. And when the occasional child did venture to talk to me—out of sympathy or boredom or just plain curiosity—his parents would soon put a stop to it.” This was apparently caused by the fact that Michelle was the first non-Caucasian they’d ever laid eyes on, and that the town was made up of World War II vets, and that the country was embroiled in a war with people she resembled.
This is a love story about a granddaughter and a grandfather. This child is adored. Her grandfather, her saving grace, cloaks her in his insular, protected sphere. Here is a man who lived in Deerhorn his entire life; who, supposedly, refused to leave town even when he was offered an opportunity to play minor league baseball; who didn’t attend his own son’s wedding because the son was marrying a Japanese woman; who spends his wildly predictable day as a retiree going from the town diner, to the gun shop, to home for his five o’clock dinner. For Michelle, he is the embodiment of larger-than-life because he is nice to her. He becomes the window the author looks out as she develops her own viewpoint.
The novel is propelled forward by the arrival of the first black couple to Deerhorn. In essence, the civil rights movement comes to town. Much insanity ensues surrounding this couple, and the eventual action leads to page-turning breathlessness. Revoyr knows how to tell a story and keep us on tenterhooks. There’s no summarizing or hinting that will do it justice. As the narrative rushes forward, Michelle’s adult wisdom hatches before our eyes. The narrator, who is an older Michelle, manages to straddle the conflict from within the dawning awareness of a young girl and the time-healed wisdom of a survivor in the 20-page epilogue.
Much can be said and commended about the book’s themes of loyalty and love. Let someone else say that. I’ll just say that this author is a big talent. Her book is a little thing of beauty. It’s a story with American historical significance; it’s a novel with emotional heft; it’s a satisfying read in the spirit of what Picasso said about another writer, James Joyce: “The incomprehensible that everyone can understand.”