Release Date: October 6, 2020
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
SPOILER-FREE REVIEW: Every Now and Then is a coming-of-age fiction/historical fiction novel coming out in October 2020. It was written by Lesley Kagen, a NYT bestselling author (and actress/speaker) who has published 10 novels. It’s set in the summer of 1960, which is the summer that changed the lives of three best friends forever.
PLOT RUNDOWN/BASICS: Every Now and Then begins at the start of the hottest summer on record in the small town of Summit in 1960, where three eleven-year-old best friends – Frankie, Viv, and the narrator, Biz – are let out of school early due to the heat. The girls are excited for the early start to their normal summer activities: watching horror movies at the theater on Saturdays, visiting (and spying on) the Broadhurst Mental Institution, and spending all of their nights in Biz’s treehouse. Biz’s father is the town’s doctor whose ancestors founded the city, so they lived in a large mansion (the “crowned jewel” of the neighborhood) with Biz’s aunt, Jane May. Her mother had died shortly after childbirth, so Aunt Jane May – her mother’s sister – had moved in to help raise Biz and keep up with the household duties.
Biz’s father, Doc, built her the treehouse (the “Taj Mahal of hideouts,” Biz says) as a memorial to his late wife, and Frankie and Viv spend every summer night in the treehouse with Biz…as long as they’re all getting along, of course. They call themselves the Tree Muskateers; Viv is the short-tempered but charming one, Biz is the hopeful peacemaker, and Frankie is the brains. Frankie is also biracial, which was seen socially as a cardinal sin at the time; her mother Dell was black, and her unknown father was white, so she was “adopted” by her mother’s Italian employers to keep the town racists at bay.
The girls spend much of their summers in Mud Town, where the people of color live, and visiting Broadhurst…but this summer, they create a list of goals to accomplish. They want to get to know the mental patients better, and their aim is to find a way to access the yard where the orderlies take the non-violent patients to enjoy the fresh air. The town holds a meeting regarding a violent child murderer who’s being transferred to Broadhurst, but the girls feel safe; the violent offenders are locked up on the third floor, and besides, they know that the adults cannot be trusted in matters regarding race or mental illness. (At the town meeting regarding Wally Hopper, the child murderer, Biz says, “When a handful of men leapt to their feet, raised their fists, and yelled, ‘Yeah, yeah!’ it reminded me of the scene in Frankenstein when the villagers came hunting for the monster with torches blazing and pitchforks waving.”)
I actually burst into tears at the last paragraph of the last chapter, which was so touching and tied the entire story together so beautifully.”
But there’s more to Broadhurst than meets the eye, and soon the girls find themselves in over their heads. People are disappearing, and there are rumors among the staff (and in Biz’s house among her father and Aunt Jane May, late at night) that the doctor is performing experiments that are at best, unethical, and at worst…well, Biz isn’t sure. The determination of the three girls to set things straight and uncover the answers to all of their small town’s secrets – including daring missions led in the dark woods in the middle of the night – will land them in a world of trouble they never imagined, and it will leave them all with lasting scars.
MY THOUGHTS: This book was my first book by Kagen, and I truly enjoyed it and found it to be a fantastic read. The release date is October, but it describes a nostalgic summer as a child/preteen so perfectly that I wish it was released now for everyone to enjoy. I give it a rare 10 stars, and I actually burst into tears at the last paragraph of the last chapter, which was so touching and tied the entire story together so beautifully. (I teared up again just rereading it for the review.)
I think it’s also an incredibly timely book in regards to its discussion on race and prejudice in 1960. Biz, the protaganist, often waxes poetic about her dreams of unity and reconciliation for the future; she is already sharp enough to see how the townspeople truly feel about the people of color living in Mud Town: “No one had yet challenged the unspoken rule in Summit: you colored people stay on your side and we’ll stay on ours – unless you’ve come to do yard work, clean house, or haul away junk.” By the end of the novel, she comes to understand what Jimbo meant when he told her that “Mud towners” (the people of color) never show up at town meetings because, “Us givin’ our opinions to those in charge is ’bout as useful as throwin’ a T-bone to a toothless dog.'”
Kagan writes Biz as a sympathetic character; she still has the innocence and hopefulness of a child, but she often displays a maturity beyond her years. Biz says that people who suffer from any kind of mental illness are “almost always portrayed as deranged monsters” in the movies. She and her friends are 11 and are young enough to only see the humanity and similarities between themselves and the people of Mud Town, and the patients at Broadhurst…but she realizes that the adults have prejudices that keep them from seeing these truths. And the book doesn’t end without a hopeful note; at the Fourth of July celebration, Biz says, “But, you know, watching just about everyone in town breaking tradition to enjoy folks from both sides of the tracks making beautiful music together on the birthday of the land of the free and home of the brave, I couldn’t help but feel that I was witnessing a small miracle.”
The historic setting and nostalgia of the time period makes the story feel safer than it should, especially knowing that there are parts of this novel that read like a horror movie. There are predators in 1960 just like there are predators today, and the woods surrounding the mental institution are not the safest place for young girls to be roaming free…which they’ll discover more than once, and which allows Kagen to use her poetic writing style in a darker and more Poe-like manner: “The town had fallen into a scared silence beneath a moonless sky, and the air was so hot and thick that it dampened the crickets and frogs and other night sounds to near nothing as well. Or maybe those creatures of God were sensing that evil was on the prowl and they didn’t want to give their hiding places away.”
Last but certainly not least, the girls themselves and their friendship – despite the differences between them – makes the story an unforgettable read. Seeing how they made up for each other’s shortcomings and came to each other’s aid was touching, especially when viewed from the lens of their time: “We had black and white blood running in our veins, and if the three of us could get along, hell, anybody could.” The brief prologue, and satisfying epilogue, let us know not just the effects of that summer on the trio in 1960, but how it played out within the rest of their adulthood as well.