The Shadow Year is a charming coming-of-age tale about the 6th grade year of an average American boy (we never learn his name) growing up in the 1960s. This year isn’t average, though, because there are some strange things going on in his small town. As he navigates his way around mundane matters such as an alcoholic manic depressive mother, a father who holds down three jobs, live-in grandparents, and unpleasant teachers, he’s also concerned with a prowler, a classmate who disappeared, and a strange suspicious man who drives an eerie white car. Things get really creepy when he realizes that the weird things happening around town seem to be linked to the way his possibly-autistic / possibly-savant little sister moves the cars and people around in his older brother’s replica of their town which he works on in their basement.
The Shadow Year feels more like mainstream fiction — it’s mostly about coming of age, family relationships, and living in a small town. Except for the wonder at Mary’s abilities, the supernatural elements are down-played and don’t become obvious until the end. The novel reminds me very much of A Christmas Story — that classic movie about Ralphie who wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas (“You’ll shoot your eye out!”). Similarly, Jeffrey Ford fills his story with over-the-top characters who are fun to read about but who you’re glad you don’t live with and who you have a hard time believing could all co-exist in the same small town.
Also similarly, most of the plot revolves around the day to day events in a 6th grade boy’s life: waiting for the ice cream man, trying to complete school assignments with a minimal amount of effort, getting picked on by older kids, skipping church, sneaking out of the house, and trying to keep up with his brave and reckless older brother. These little slices of life are funny, poignant, and so beautifully and vividly described that they often brought a smile to my face and occasionally brought tears to my eyes. Here’s a passage about the ice cream man:
Occasionally Mel would try to be pleasant, but I think the paper canoe of a hat he wore every day soured him. He also wore a blue bow tie, a white shirt, and white pants. His face was long and crooked, and at times, when the orders came to fast and the kids didn’t have the right change, the bottom half of his face would slowly melt — a sundae abandoned at the curb…. In a voice that came straight from his freezer, he called my sister, Mary, and all the other girls “sweetheart.”
The Shadow Year is worth reading simply for Jeffrey Ford’s excellent imagery and atmosphere, powerful prose, and razor-sharp descriptions of life we can relate to, but it’s also a good mystery with plenty of tension and suspense. The relationship we observe between the boy and his older brother and little sister is truly touching. I have to add, also, that our ability to engage with a character whose name we never know is surprising and indicates Ford’s confidence and courage.
Despite its subject material, The Shadow Year is not a book for kids because of the language and sexual content. I listened to Audible Frontier’s production of The Shadow Year which was read by Kevin T. Collins who has an astonishing range of voices at his command. His excellent narration definitely added to my reading enjoyment and I’ll be looking for his name in the future.
I’m already on to my second Jeffrey Ford novel. He’s now on my list of must-be-read authors.