Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Excellent Lombards

by Jane Hamilton
Grand Central     2016
273 pages     Literary Fiction/YA

The Excellent Lombards is, as my father would say, "a keeper." It has been several months since I have read a book that I enjoyed as much as this delightful and insightful coming of age story by Jane Hamilton.  

 Mary Francis Lombard of The Excellent Lombards,  moves from childhood through high school on a Wisconsin apple farm, Hamilton's home turf. The book begins in the mid-1990s and ends when Mary Francis is in high school in the early 2000s. Her father, Jim, farms a large family farm with his cousin, and her world includes all the various and sundry interesting personalities that make up a farming community. One detail I loved was that Mary Francis—Frankie--or MF as she chooses to be called in high school--is also the daughter of the community's librarian. Hamilton has the acerbic wit and intelligence of a librarian down pat in her characterization of Nellie, Frankie's mother. 

The plot, if there is one, never leaves the family farm but focuses entirely on Mary Francis' love of her family, love of the farm, and her observations about the people who populate her universe. Her curiosity and intelligence gets her into trouble, but Hamilton has incredible insight into the workings of a young girl's mind, and the reader is amazed and amused at her intrigues. There certainly are allusions to To Kill a Mockingbird, and I think Scout and Mary Francis would have been good friends.

Mary Francis loves the farm passionately, and she believes that she will take over the running of the farm when she grows up—but only after she marries her brother William, who is one year older than her. Slowly, as she grows, she reluctantly comes to the realization that of course, she can't marry her brother, but also she may not be the one to carry on the farming tradition. She is suspicious of every person who may be an interloper and take the farm away from her. William, for sure, is not going to farm with her. In one clever scene, the family gets its first computer. William plugs it in, and "in the glow of the soft grey light he clicked on the mouse, and down, down he fell into the infinite world."

I related to this book on many levels—my own childhood visiting the family farm, watching my daughter and granddaughters mature and change their life's focus, and now watching my 4-year-old granddaughter relate to her 3-year-old brother with a relationship much like Mary Francis and William. Growing up is both joyous and painful; life is a mystery that must be solved; and growth comes from watching and emulating the people who surround you. One reviewer called Mary Francis' eyes "omnivorous." 

The humor is so spontaneous and yet so well conceived. I had a good laugh over the introduction of honey crisp apples on the farm. I live in the fruit belt of Michigan, and the introduction of honey crisp apples was a huge deal around here—must have been in Wisconsin as well. And then, I had to stop and read my husband the passage about a family Euchre game—Euchre being a Midwest card game I first learned from my Indiana farmer in-laws. Father Jim plays Euchre just like my husband does, needing instruction every time he sits down to play.

The Kirkus review says of the book: "Richly characterized, beautifully written, and heartbreakingly poignant—another winner from this talented and popular author." The book comes out on Tuesday, April 19. 

Jane Hamilton is the author of several other books and the winner of many awards. I highly recommend The Excellent Lombards and would agree with other reviewers that it is appropriate for young adult readers as well. I will be giving my copy to my 15-year-old granddaughters. 

I loved this book so much. It is hard to give it up and publish this blog posting!

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