Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Mocking Mockingbird?

By Shelly Ridenour

FEBRUARY 23, 1999: 

"My Last Days as Roy Rogers"
Pat Cunningham Devoto
Warner Books, 358 pages, $20

Author Pat Cunningham Devoto had to know the comparison would be inevitable.

Write a coming-of-age novel about a 10-year-old Alabama tomboy, just post-WWII. Let her deal with race relations, white trash moonshiners, nosy neighbors and death. Have her spy on the bad guys, get herself in trouble hanging out places she's been forbidden to visit and have a run-in with a drunk. Throw in a puny little pansy of a pal, and just wait to be called either an heir to the Harper Lee crown or a fraud.

Happily, Devoto is no pretender to the throne, even if it seems that way on the surface. Sure, "My Last Days as Roy Rogers," at least as a concept, comes on like a direct re-tread of "To Kill a Mockingbird." And, sure, to some purists that probably reads like blasphemy. But Lord knows there's room in the world and certainly on bookshelves - for two great stories. And Cunningham Devoto's story is great. Tab (short for Tabitha) Rutland is a spitfire of Southern charm, at once loving Roy Rogers and playing football as much as she wants her "Yankee" Tennessee mother to fit in by joining the Ladies Help League and taking up her rightful position as "plantation" matriarch. Mother, spirited woman of the modern South that she is, doesn't cooperate; not only does she offend the condescending snots of the Ladies Help League, she also can't keep househelp to save her life. "Grandmama says maids quit on you 'cause you're from the North and don't know how to talk to them," Tab tells her mother. "She says you're going to use up all the maids in town before long."

While the message of equality doesn't sink in for Tab during the story's time span, you can see that she will one day look back at her mother's behavior and realize the morality lessons she has absorbed.

The underlying shadow darkening the plot is the polio epidemic that's slowly working its way through town; it is the great unseen bogeyman under the bed that everyone fears. DDT is sprayed periodically. Kids are kept in cool basements, sent to mountain camps and forbidden to drink creek water and eat bananas, all in the name of prevention. It doesn't stop Tab from sneaking out to play with her friends Maudie and the Brothers, the children of the black housekeeper next door, in their kudzu-shielded fort. It is during these adventurous moments that "My Last Days as Roy Rogers" feels like another great book, Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," as the lively, braver-than-they-should-be quartet takes on moonshiners, bullies, fire and rising dam waters, never realizing they're trouncing timely racial boundaries and infusing each other with dignity.

Here's hoping this first-time novelist breaks the Harper Lee mold in more than one way, and doesn't end her career here.

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