Picks and Pans Review: Crazy in Alabama

updated 09/27/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/27/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Mark Childress

To 12-year-old Peejoe, it promises to be just another Alabama summer: "The while folks looked happy, the colored folks were largely invisible, and the dogs had enough sense to lie down in the shade." He couldn't be more wrong. For in the summer of 1965, the surging civil rights movement will forever alter the world, even as little white boys like Peejoe know it. And in his case, there will be personal upheaval to match—caused by his beautiful, brazen and almost certainly crazy Aunt Lucille.

As the novel opens, Lucille declares her independence from what she considers an oppressive life by murdering her oafish husband, Chester, dumping their six brats with her mother and hightailing it for Hollywood to audition for The Beverly Hillbillies—toting Chester's severed head along in a Tupperware lettuce keeper. She quickly takes to the role of desperado, seducing, stealing and, if necessary, shooting her way cross-country. Meanwhile, back home, orphans Peejoe and his older brother, Wiley, embark on a darker series of adventures. Their beloved grandmother must ship them off to live with her undertaker son in a small town that turns into a flash point of civil rights strife.

Less sure hands than those of Childress (the 'Bama-born author of three critically acclaimed novels) might easily have fumbled these dual stories, with their frequent shifts in tone and their bold juxtaposition of a people's struggle for freedom against that of one probably dizzy woman. But somehow he makes it work. By turns comic, tragic and, most of all, moving, Crazy in Alabama is a heartfelt original that cuts to the quick. (Putnam, $22.95)

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