Vicki Grove (1948-)
Vicki Grove has written a number of novels for young readers that revolve around life in the American Midwest, often in rural farming communities, but the conflicts her protagonists encounter strike a resonant note with adolescent readers everywhere. Grove's teens struggle with sibling rivalry, peer pressure and, most often, economic hardship. As their stories progress, they realize that family, school, and the larger community have provided them with the morals to help them through their problems. Grove once commented, "I picture my reader as being a young person with an open heart, trying to find the way to live as a decent and compassionate human being in a complicated yet beautiful world."
Grove grew up in the Midwest. "My childhood was idyllic," she once said. "I grew up on the Illinois prairie, in a little one-room schoolhouse near the big white houses of my grandparents and great-grandparents. They were all storytellers from the word go, and I heard all about ancestors who took the Oregon Trail, who fought in the Civil War or went to the front to nurse their fallen sons there, uncles who had jumped off the roof with umbrellas, lightning that hit horses in the corral and left four hoof-prints branded in the ground, ghosts in the attics, etc, etc. I imagine they had more respect for the inner truth of a story than for the absolute facts, as I think all first-class storytellers do.
"When I was twelve we moved from Illinois to Oklahoma, and I lived there until I was 18, going through both junior high and high school there. Teens in Oklahoma do the car thing, drag Main, build bonfires on the beaches of the lakes, live a frontier life that is very fun and outdoorsy and cool. I set one of my books, The Starplace, in Oklahoma and used a lot of those teen memories. Unfortunately, I also remember blatant small-town racism from those years, and that book concerns those not-so-great memories, too.
"I fell into writing in my early thirties, much by accident. I sent a few magazine pieces out, and when they began to be accepted I was totally shocked, but I kept with it, and it grew into a career that I love with all my heart. When I'd been writing for magazines for about eight years, I wrote a short book about a farm foreclosure, told from the viewpoint of a twelve-year-old girl. I entered that book in a contest G.P. Putnam's Sons was having for a first novel for young people, and to my vast surprise, it won and was published."
That novel was Goodbye, My Wishing Star, published in 1988. The story is told from the point of view of twelve-year-old Jens Tucker, whose mother's family has farmed their property for generations. Jens knows the end is near, however; other farms in the area have been sold off, and her parents discuss following suit and moving to the city to find work instead. The title of the book comes from a knothole in the barn where Jens milks cows before sun-up. Through it, she can see a special star, and wishes upon it that her family's finances might improve. Her father works hard to keep the farm viable, but Jens's mother believes that life in the city will be far easier for Jens and her little brother, Roger.
Jens's story is recounted in diary form, and when it appears that their farm will indeed be sold, she is angry at having to give up the acreage, the animals, and the sense of heritage that the farm gives her. Feeling powerless at first, she plans to hide her journal in the barn, so the new owners might find it and learn how her family agonized over their decision to leave their land, and how heartbroken a twelve-year-old was that she would never be part of its future. But Jens also becomes aware that injustice and hardship are not her own to claim. The father of one of her friends has also lost their farm and then dies of a heart attack. The mother of another classmate drinks and forces the younger brother to beg to support them. In contrast, Jens's best friend, Marla, has had a relatively easy life, but helps Jens come to terms with the change with some astute observations.
Jens must say goodbye to her beloved animals before a public auction in which the Tuckers' farm tools and livestock are sold. When she meets Jack Shire, an eccentric who collects old cars and stores them in an old bank building in town, he reminds her that even if the Tucker farm is sold, it will always remain in her heart. As the diary comes to a close, Jens realizes she is looking forward to the adventure of starting over anew—that after so many farewells "something inside me is about ready for some hellos," she admits. Goodbye, My Wishing Star earned enthusiastic reviews. "Though the story is sad, there is also a strength as Jens recognizes that she must get on with her life," observed Booklist's Denise M. Wilms.
In Junglerama, a trio of twelve-year-old boys in a small town find an abandoned carnival trailer and creates a traveling exhibition of animals. The boys' particular hardships are the real focus of the story, however. The work is narrated by T. J., whose parents quarrel constantly and whose mother neglects them. Jack, an orphan, must care for his alcoholic uncle. Mike's father has lost the family farm and now works as a stablehand. Over the course of the summer, a series of incidents incites gossip and then panic through the town, and some come to believe that their community has fallen under a witch's spell. Blame falls upon an eccentric woman, Cora Beeson, and the boys help rescue her from a dangerous situation in a gripping finale. Again, the work won positive reviews for Grove. T. J's narrative, noted School Library Journal reviewer Gerry Larson, "conveys both innocence and discovery.… Plot twists, well-paced action, and T. J.'s gradual maturing make this summer unforgettable."
In her next novel, The Fastest Friend in the West, Grove again presents an adolescent heroine who must deal with personal trauma. When Lori's best friend finds a new crowd and rejects her, she suffers as any twelve-year-old might; her situation is made all the more difficult by her weight problem. In response, she becomes obsessed with all things marine, painting her bedroom dark blue and decorating it with shells. She even renames herself Lorelei, after the legendary mermaid. At school, a girl who is somewhat of an outcast strikes up a friendship with her. Other kids shun Vern Hittlinger because of her odd clothes and disheveled appearance, but Lori worries when Vern stops coming to school. A teacher tells her that the Hittlingers live in their car on the outskirts of town.
In the second half of the book, Lori goes to see Vern, and learns about the hardships the Hittlingers have encountered over the past few years. Vern's strategy, when finding herself in a new school, has been to make one friend as quickly as possible. They depart again, and Lori later receives a postcard from Vern, saying that her family has found a real home. Toward the novel's close, Lori comes to terms with her weight problem, and resolves to make some changes in her life. "The specter of homelessness," remarked Horn Book writer Nancy Vasilakis, "the strain it puts on a proud family with little in the way of resources and more than its share of bad luck—will be a revelation to young readers."
Grove also won laudatory reviews for her 1993 book, Rimwalkers. Told in flashback form, the story revolves around the summer that fourteen-year-old Victoria, or "Tory," and her sister spend on her grandparents' Illinois farm, while their parents travel overseas. Tory is quiet and studious, and looks forward to conducting nature experiments. The more vivacious Sara, however, resents being removed from her friends for the entire summer. Also visiting the grandparents that summer are the girls' cousins, Elijah and Rennie. Elijah, the product of a farm family himself, is there to help the grandfather with the chores and summer crop. Rennie, at sixteen, is the oldest of them all and is a high-school dropout from California. At first, the others are put off by his free-spirited, rebellious attitude and daring pranks, such as rimwalking—traversing the narrow attic beams. "The true magic" in Grove's tale, noted Margaret Cole in a School Library Journal review, revolves around the alliance in which "the teens teach one another to believe in themselves and in life's delicate balance between risk and security." Writing for Booklist, Jeanne Triner praised the rural setting for being "richly drawn" and for "making the farm and its magic real to even the most urban reader."
A death in the family brings changes to Eliza's life in The Crystal Garden. Eliza's father has been killed in an accident, and she and her mother struggle to make ends meet. In time, they decide to move to a small Missouri town with Burl, her mother's friend, who is also a country-music musician. There, Eliza tries to fit in at school, and keeps her distance from a neighbor girl around her own age, Dierdre, whose difficult home life has made her somewhat of an outcast at school. A science project brings them together, and Eliza discovers that one of Dierdre's parents has an alcohol problem, and they are nearly destitute. Yet Dierdre manages her situation so well that Eliza realizes that her peer is far more balanced than she is. Other revelations help Eliza come to terms with the loss of her father. "A satisfying ending and epilogue leave room for hope, thought, and discussion," observed School Library Journal reviewer Susan Oliver.
In Reaching Dustin, sixth-grade writer Carly is dismayed when she is assigned to interview the class outcast for a school project. Dustin is sullen and withdrawn, and Carly has heard rumors about his family's possible ties to white supremacist militia groups. As Carly recounts, Dustin's behavioral problems began in the third grade, not long after his mother committed suicide.
Dustin's family is suspected of hoarding weapons and distributing drugs. But as Carly begins to learn more about Dustin's situation, she is surprised by some of the revelations. He loves animals, for example, and carries a pet frog with him; he is also quite musical. When an incident with Dustin's frog escalates into a town uproar, Dustin is removed from school. Carly, worried and feeling guilty, tries to help him. "Carly's inner development is convincingly painful as she realizes the part she played in creating Dustin's problems," noted Steven Engelfried in a School Library Journal review. The "heartfelt story," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer, "unmasks the vulnerabilities of two preadolescents from very different walks of life." Susan P. Bloom's Horn Book review found that "the emotional tone rings true," and Kirkus Reviews also praised Grove's talents. "Among a cast of memorable characters, Dustin is obviously pitiable but also noble," its assessment noted, and described Reaching Dustin as "written with grace" and "brimming with compassion."
Grove drew upon some of her own experiences growing up in Oklahoma for her 1999 novel The Starplace. The story is told by Frannie, who is thirteen years old in 1961 when an African American family moves to their small town. Frannie makes friends with the daughter, Celeste, but soon learns that others in the town, and even at her school, are far less accepting. Celeste is greeted with taunts, and racist incidents occur, but she maintains her poise amidst the ugliness. Her father is a historian writing a book about white-supremacist groups in this part of Oklahoma, and her grandfather was the victim of a lynching in the area. Writing in School Library Journal, Connie Tyrell Burns called The Star-place a "powerful coming-of-age tale, written with grace and poignancy," and found Grove's "characterizations, particularly of Frannie and Celeste, … strong and memorable."
The title character of Grove's eighth novel, Destiny, is another young woman who emerges from hardship to find her own strength. As the story begins, Destiny's mom is a gambling addict who dreams of striking it rich with the lottery. Jack, her mother's deceitful boyfriend, forces Destiny to help him at his job—selling shoddy fruits and vegetables door-to-door in their town, a task that humiliates her. When a sympathetic adult helps Destiny find better work as a reader to a home-bound elderly woman, Mrs. Peck, Destiny starts to see some parallels in her life with the travails of the beleaguered heroes of the Greek myths she reads aloud. When Jack auctions a beloved pet rabbit belonging to Destiny's younger brother, she saves it in her own act of heroism. Mrs. Peck reveals to her some enlightening truths about Destiny's family, and after Jack winds up in jail, Destiny's mother decides to go back to school. Burns, writing in School Library Journal, praised "Grove's lyrical writing style" and the "narration, which rings true with Destiny's memorable and poignant voice."
"I'm very disciplined in my work," Grove once said. "My father built me a wonderful, tiny office in the hayfield behind our house, and I spend most of every day out there (out here!) writing. Writing is really rewriting, and it takes me most of a year to do a book—slow! I begin a book with a character that intrigues me. Sometimes he or she will be from memory, sometimes from observation, or even, occasionally, purely imaginary. This person could be a girl whose father has just died, or a boy in a white supremacist compound, or someone experiencing prejudice at school. At the moment I'm writing about a girl in a family that experiences tragedy and, as a way of escaping from themselves (ultimately impossible, as they will find out), goes on the migrant circuit. I've done lots of research into the lifestyles and challenges of migrant farmworker families, have talked to kids involved in that life, etc.
"Still, it's a huge responsibility trying to put someone else's life on paper, especially a life so much unlike your own, and probably much harder. I take that responsibility very, very seriously. And, as I mentioned, I'm always thankful my parents taught me to view other people with compassion, first and foremost. I hope I learned that lesson well. I hope I learned how to empathize well enough to actually slip into other hearts. I have to have lots of quiet around me when I work, and lots of peace in my life when I'm in the middle of a book. It's a weird sensation, living your own life and also the life of your main character, simultaneously! My family says I zombie out when I'm immersed in a book, and that's true. I burn dinner, have car wrecks (seriously), the whole ball of wax."
Grove hopes her readers will take away a lesson from her books through the difficulties that her characters rise above. She realizes that all teens face their own personal challenges. "I want to tell that person that I admire the quest they're on, and think it's worthy of their immense effort," she once commented.
Biographical and Critical Sources
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 38, Gale (Farmington Hills, MI), 2001.
ALAN Review, fall, 2000, Anne Sherill, review of Destiny, p. 35.
Booklist, April 15, 1988, Denise M. Wilms, review of Goodbye, My Wishing Star, p. 1431; July, 1990, Deborah Abbott, review of The Fastest Friend in the West, p. 2089; October 15, 1993, Jeanne Triner, review of Rimwalkers, pp. 430-431; May 1, 1998, Michael Cart, review of Reaching Dustin, p. 1518; June 1, 1999, Hazel Rochman, review of The Starplace, p. 1813.
Horn Book, July-August, 1990, Nancy Vasilakis, review of The Fastest Friend in the West, p. 455; March-April, 1998, Susan P. Bloom, review of Reaching Dustin, p. 220.
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 1988, review of Goodbye, My Wishing Star, p. 692; March 1, 1998, review of Reaching Dustin, p. 339; May 15, 1999, review of The Star-place, p. 800.
Kliatt, January, 1997, Dean E. Lyons, review of Rimwalkers, p. 8.
Publishers Weekly, September 29, 1993, review of Rim-walkers, p. 64; May 11, 1998, review of Reaching Dustin, p. 68; July 5, 1999, review of The Starplace, p. 72; July 31, 2000, review of Destiny, p 96.
School Library Journal, July, 1989, Gerry Larson, review of Junglerama, p. 82; October, 1993, Margaret Cole, review of Rimwalkers, p. 151; May, 1995, Susan Oliver, review of The Crystal Garden, p. 106; May, 1998, Steven Engelfried, review of Reaching Dustin, p. 142; June, 1999, Connie Tyrell Burns, review of The Starplace, p. 129; April, 2000, Connie Tyrell Burns, review of Destiny, p. 134.
Voice of Youth Advocates, October, 1988, Eleanor Klopp, review of Goodbye, My Wishing Star, p. 181; December, 1993, Deborah A. Feulner, review of Rimwalkers, p. 291; June, 2000, Roxy Ekstrom, review of Destiny, p. 114.
AuthorChats, http://www.authorchats.com/ (June 30, 2004), interview with Grove.
Vicki Grove's Web Page, http://mowrites4kids.drury.edu/authors/grove/ (June 30, 2004), author home page.
- Vicki Grove (1948-) - Autobiography Feature Vicki Grove
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