Monday, October 10, 2022

Yonder by Ali Standish

In 1940, Danny Timmons was 10 and living in a small Appalachian town called Foggy Gap the first time he really noticed Jack Bailey. Jack had rescued toddler twins caught in the floodwaters after the Watauga River burst its banks during a powerful rain storm. 

Three years later, Danny is almost 13, Jack is almost 16, and World War II is raging far from Foggy Gap and yet still touching the lives of its residents. Danny's father was only one of the men who had left for the war and now residents of Foggy Gap are doing all sorts of jobs men used to do. Danny and Jack have been delivering newspapers all over town for a year and a half now. But one summer morning in 1943, Jack never shows up for his share of the papers, so Danny delivers all of them, surprised since he knew Jack and his father really needed the money he brought home. 

Danny had always been bullied by Bruce Pittman and his pal Logan Abbot until one day in 1941 Jack had come to his rescue and became Danny's personal hero. Now, worried that Jack hadn't shown up to deliver papers. Danny and his mother, who was a reporter for the newspaper, drive out to see if he's alright. Jack lives with his father in a cabin with no indoor plumbing or electricity in the woods. His father, known for his temper and cruelty, isn't at all concerned that Jack has been missing since the day before, saying he is probably hunting, and chases them off his property.

Danny has reason to be worried about Jack. Back in December 1941, Jack had shown up at the newspaper office with swollen eyes, a bloody nose and bruises on his body. Jack stayed with the Timmons until Christmas, when his father came to get him. It was now also clear that Jack's father beat him on a fairly regular basis.  

With Mr. Timmons away at war, Jack and Danny become more than friends, with Jack mentoring Danny the way a father would. Jack also shares stories with Danny that his mother used to tell him, especially about a place called Yonder, an idyllic town with no trouble and no war. Naturally, when Jack goes missing, Danny is sure he has run away to Yonder and sets out to discover where it is and to bring Jack back home. 

While Jack's story plays out, so does the stories about Lou, Danny's former best friend, as girl obsessed with Nancy Drew, and Widow Wagner, a woman of German descent who, according to Bruce Pittman, was hiding Germans who has escaped POW camps and plotting an attack on the town. 

Yonder is a home front story and as the author writes in her Historical Notes, "...not many books have focused on the American homefront." And she's right - we don't know all that much about how Americans lived even though they were greatly impacted by the war. And yes, she has included the usual things like rationing, collecting scrap, women taking on men's jobs (Mrs. Timmons, who is pregnant, took over her husband's job at the newspaper), blue or gold stars hanging in the windows of families with soldiers in the war. But two things set this novel apart for me. The first is her interrogation of the idea of what makes a person a hero. And as Danny learns through Jack and his story it isn't always what we think it means. Second, Standish dispels the long held belief that Americans didn't know what was happening to the Jews in Europe. The headline WARSAW that Danny sees in an article his mother is reading in New Republic magazine, referring to the Warsaw Uprising, sparks a conversation about why the Jewish genocide isn't included in the media, something Mrs. Timmons tries to rectify in their local paper. 

Yonder is told in the first person present by Danny with recurring flashbacks that detail both his and Jack's story and friendship. Danny is a compelling narrator and keeps the story moving along very nicely. Through him and his keen observations, the novel explores themes of bullying, racism, abuse, bravery, courage, outsiders, family and friendships. 

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