As she turns twelve during the summer of 1953, Penny gains new insights into herself and her family while also learning a secret about her father's death.
Jennifer L. Holm is the author of several highly praised novels, including Our Only May Amelia and the Babymouse series. She lives in Fallston, Maryland, with her husband, Jonathan Hamel, their son Will, and a rather large cat named Princess Leia.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Gr. 5-8. Penny lives with her "plain old American" mother and grandparents, but she has an open invitation to visit her deceased father's Italian family, where the delicious aromas are as inviting as the boisterous relatives who welcome her. Against the backdrop of these contrasting 1950s households, the author of Newbery Honor Book Our Only May Amelia (1999) charts the summer of Penny's twelfth birthday, marked by hapless episodes as well as serious tensions arising from the estranged families' refusal to discuss her father's death. Penny is a low-key character, often taking a backseat role in escapades with high-spirited cousin Frankie. However, Holm impressively wraps pathos with comedy in this coming-of-age story, populated by a cast of vivid characters (a burping, farting grandpa; an eccentric uncle who lives in his car-"not exactly normal for people in New Jersey"). Concluding with a photo-illustrated endnote explaining Holm's inspirations in family history, this languidly paced novel will appeal most to readers who appreciate gentle, episodic tales with a nostalgic flavor. Hand selling may be necessary to overcome the staid jacket illustration. ((Reviewed April 15, 2006)) Copyright 2006 Booklist Reviews.
Penny, almost 12, is caught between two extremes: her mother's small, uptight, WASP family, and her dead father's large, exuberant, Italian one. Summers, she moves freely between them, mediating as best she can between the two. Her best pal is her cousin Frankie, with whom she delivers groceries from her uncle's store, worships at the shrine of the Brooklyn Dodgers and gets into trouble. No one talks about her father's absence, and that's beginning to bother her more and more. And even worse, her mother has begun dating the milkman. Holm has crafted a leisurely, sprawling period piece, set in the 1950s and populated by a large cast of offbeat characters. Penny's present-tense narration is both earthy and observant, and her commentary on her families' eccentricities sparkles. Various scrapes and little tragedies lead to a nearly catastrophic encounter with a clothes wringer and finally the truth about her father's death. It takes so long to get there that the revelation seems rather anticlimactic, but getting to know Penny and her families makes the whole eminently worthwhile. (Fiction. 9-13) Copyright Kirkus 2006 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Me-me says that Heaven is full of fluffy white clouds and angels.
That sounds pretty swell, but how can you sit on a cloud? Wouldn’t you fall right through and smack onto the ground? Like Frankie always says, angels have wings, so what do they have to worry about?
My idea of Heaven has nothing to do with clouds or angels. In my Heaven there’s butter pecan ice cream and swimming pools and baseball games. The Brooklyn Dodgers always win, and I have the best seat in the house, right behind the Dodgers’ dugout. That’s the only advantage that I can see to being dead: You get the best seat in the house.
I think about Heaven a lot. Not because of the usual reasons, though. I’m only eleven, and I don’t plan on dying until I’m at least a hundred. It’s just that I’m named after that Bing Crosby song “Pennies from Heaven,” and when you’re named after something, you can’t help but think about it.
See, my father was crazy about Bing Crosby, and that’s why everyone calls me Penny instead of Barbara Ann Falucci, which is what’s on my birth certificate. No one ever calls me Barbara, except teachers, and sometimes even I forget that it’s my real name.
I guess it could be worse. I could be called Clementine, which was the name of another Bing Crosby song that my father really liked. I don’t think I’d make a very good Clementine.
Then again, who would?
Uncle Dominic is sitting in his car. It’s a 1940 Plymouth Roadking. It’s black with chrome trim, and the hubcaps are so shiny, you could use them as a mirror. Uncle Dominic pays my cousin Frankie to shine them up. It’s an awfully nice car; everybody says so. But then, it’s kind of hard to miss. It’s been parked in the side yard of my grandmother Falucci’s house for as long as I can remember.
Uncle Dominic lives right there in his car. Nobody in the family thinks it’s weird that Uncle Dominic lives in his car, or if they do, nobody ever says anything. It’s 1953, and it’s not exactly normal for people in New Jersey to live in cars. Most people around here live in houses. But Uncle Dominic’s kind of a hermit. He also likes to wear slippers instead of shoes. Once I asked him why.
“They’re comfortable,” he said.
Besides living in the car and wearing slippers, Uncle Dominic’s my favorite uncle, and I have a lot of uncles. Sometimes I lose track of them.
“Hey, Princess,” Uncle Dominic calls. I lean through the window and hear the announcer on the portable radio. Uncle Dominic likes to listen to ball games in the car. There’s a pillow and a ratty-looking blanket on the backseat. Uncle Dominic says the car’s the only place he can get any rest. He has a lot of trouble falling asleep.
“Hi, Uncle Dominic,” I say.
“Game’s on,” he says.
I start to open the back door, but Uncle Dominic says, “You can sit up front.”
Uncle Dominic’s very particular about who’s allowed to sit in his car. Most people have to sit in the back, although Uncle Nunzio always sits up front. I don’t think anyone ever tells Uncle Nunzio what to do.
“Who’s winning?” I ask.
“Bums are ahead.”
I love the Brooklyn Dodgers, and so does Uncle Dominic. We call them Dem Bums. Most people around here like the New York Yankees or the Giants, but not us. Uncle Dominic is staring out the window, like he’s really in the ballpark and watching the game from the bleachers. He’s handsome, with dark hair and brown eyes. Everyone says he looks just like my father. I don’t remember my father because he died when I was just a baby, but I’ve seen photographs, and Uncle Dominic does look like him, except sadder.
“Got something for you,” Uncle Dominic says.
All my uncles give me presents. Uncle Nunzio gives me fur muffs, and Uncle Ralphie gives me candy, and Uncle Paulie brings me fancy perfumes, and Uncle Sally gives me horseshoes. It’s like Christmas all the time.
Uncle Dominic hands me something that looks like a big dark-brown bean.
“What is it?”
“It’s a lucky bean,” he says. Uncle Dominic is superstitious. “Just found it this morning. It was packed away with some old things. I got it for your father before he died, but I never had a chance to give it to him. I want you to have it.”
“Where’d you get it?” I ask.
“Florida,” he says.
Uncle Dominic loves Florida and goes to Vero Beach every winter, probably because it’s too cold to live in the car then. Even though he lives in this car, he has another car that he uses for driving, a 1950 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. Frankie says he bets Uncle Dominic has a girl down in Florida, but I kind of don’t think so. Most women want a new Frigidaire, not a backseat.
“Put it in your pocket,” he says. “It’ll keep you safe.”
The lucky bean is big and lumpy. It feels heavy, not the kind of thing to put in a pocket, but Uncle Dominic has this look about his eyes like he might just die if I don’t, and because he is my favorite uncle, I do what I always do.
I smile and say, “Thanks, Uncle Dominic.” For a moment the strain leaves his eyes.
“Anything for you, Princess,” he says. “Anything.”