Confessions of a Sidekick

In Zanesville, by Jo Ann Beard. Back Bay. 287 pp.

This is a book for those who wish to revisit their “growing up” years. In Zanesville is a coming-of-age tale revolving around the 1970s small-town life of a fourteen-year-old unnamed narrator. She has realized that everything that she does happens at the instigation of her best friend, Felicia, or “Flea.” She has become a sidekick in her own life.

The book takes place in the ’70s, though not strikingly so. In truth, the story is timeless. Jo Ann Beard, also the author of the essay collection, The Boys of My Youth, found herself enthralled with the story after writing only the first chapter.

“The first scene began with a memory of mine and moved out from there until  I was writing about people who seemed familiar to me but whom I never knew.” Beard said in conversation with Melissa Seley, included in the back of the paperback edition.

What is perhaps most prominent about this book is the characters. The narrator and Flea are unveiled over the course of the entire book, through their dialogue and actions. But the secondary characters come alive with their simple, unique descriptions:

Over on my block, the semi-interesting people include a woman who comes outside and washes her dog’s face with a dishcloth every hour or so, and a widowed man who is so gigantic he needs a kitchen chair to get to his car, alternating between using it as a walker and sitting on it to rest.

Even the town itself, the “farm implement capital of the world” of Zanesville, Illinois, is a character of its own as it is told through fourteen-year-old eye:

We care only about our own neighborhood, everything between our two houses, a handful of potholed streets and alleys lined with two-story homes and one-car garages. We have a couple of busy intersections with four-way stop signs, a red-brick barbershop, a corner tavern, a taxidermist, a family who paved their backyard and painted it green, and a house where the garage has been turned into a tap-dance studio. Otherwise, it’s all the same, every block, through our neighborhood and the neighborhoods beyond.

The language is charmingly adolescent, furthering the age and world-view of the narrator. One night, while looking with her sister, down into the kitchen window of “Old Milly” who lives next door, she notices the niece, kissing a strange man “in a way that made us sick.”

Because she is a sidekick, the narrator experiences the traditional “coming-of-age” experiences (sex, drugs, alcohol) through the observation of others. She doesn’t quite fit in; though she edges on romance wit ha couple of boys, she backs out when she is required to step up and act.

And this is perhaps what is most fascinating about this book. It is entirely memorable, even though there is no defining moment that encapsulates the story. There is no single event that changes the course of the narrator’s life, but rather a sequence of relatable moments that resonate within the reader. We root for her, this nameless character, because, even if on the smallest of levels, we understand a facet of ourselves within her.

In Zanesville was published in hardcover in 2011, and was released in paperback on April 3, 2012.

Originally written for The Spencer Daily Reporter


About katepadilla

I write for the Spencer Daily Reporter in Spencer, Iowa. I keep blogs lifebythebooks, Save Me, San Francisco, and Beauty and Beast Buy a House. I'm also hard at work writing a short story collection inspired by the music of Train.

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