Do you ever re-read books from your childhood and think “wow, this is a seriously weird book”?
I recently went through a phase where I re-read books that I loved when I was younger. Aside from the fact that they seem so much shorter now, the subject matter of most them surprised me. A few that stick out are Rimwalkers by Vicki Grove, The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbrick, and Belle Prater’s Boy by Ruth White.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved re-reading these books. It was nice to see that the magic was still there. But each of these books melded fantasy with reality in such a seamless way that my childhood brain thought it was perfectly reasonable and my adult brain thought “was someone high when they came up with this concept?”
Rimwalkers: Being overshadowed by a sibling + family farm + ghosts = weirdest summer ever. But a great story for someone who’s ever felt not-good-enough. Bonus: the first story I ever read where the older sibling was overshadowed.
The Last Book in the Universe: Spaz is epileptic, and lives in a world where there aren’t any more books. Mindprobe needles send images straight into your brain and books disappeared a long time ago. Because of his epilepsy, Spaz can’t use the mindprobe needles that everyone else is addicted to. I can’t even begin to describe the bizarre nature of this book, but I devoured it over and over again as a child.
Belle Prater’s Boy: This is the one that really left an impression on me, so it is the subject of today’s blog post; not-so-coincidentally on Ruth White’s birthday!
Gypsy, our protagonist, lives in Coal Station, Virginia, in the heart of coal country. She’s lived there her whole life, first with her parents, and now with her mom and stepdad. Her dad passed away several years ago. Her grandparents are nearby and suffice it to say, if you’ve been around a rural town in Appalachia then you’ll recognize this setting.
Gypsy’s aunt, Belle, was always overshadowed by Love, Gypsy’s mom. She could never seem to be a match for Love’s beauty and charisma. When they were younger, Belle married a coal miner and moved away.
Belle has a son named Woodrow, the same age as Gypsy. Gypsy has money, Woodrow is poor. Gypsy has long, beautiful hair, and Woodrow is cross-eyed with glasses. Gypsy and Woodrow have never had the chance to spend much time together.
Around 5:00 a.m. on a warm Sunday morning in October 1953, my Aunt Belle left her bed and vanished from the face of the earth.
And then Belle Prater goes missing. Vanished without a trace. Got out of bed one morning and never returned. She left in her nightgown, and all of her clothes were accounted for. No one can figure out what happened. Woodrow’s dad sends him to live with Belle’s parents, and Coal Station will never be the same.
Gypsy and Woodrow both take after their mothers, on the surface. But the more Gypsy learns about her Aunt Belle, the more she relates to her. Gypsy inherited her mother’s beauty, but Woodrow has the charisma. And although she adores her cousin, she feels the same jealousy that her Aunt Belle felt so many years ago.
And as the rest of the community asks “what happened to Belle Prater?” Woodrow confides in Gypsy. He recalls his mother describing her life as living in a straitjacket, how she feels like she can’t breathe. He talks about hearing his mother’s voice in a place where two worlds touch and Gypsy doesn’t really understand what he means.
But she does begin to understand that Belle Prater left on purpose. And Woodrow’s arrival in Coal Station makes Gypsy confront her own demons. She starts to feel like she’s suffocating herself, the same way her Aunt Belle did. But there’s one key difference. Her plain, unassuming cousin with his peculiar way of looking through his glasses, with a rope tied around his pants to keep them up, isn’t going to let his cousin face the same fate as his mom.
And although Gypsy is our protagonist, the story is Woodrow’s. Through Gypsy’s eyes, we see how Belle Prater’s Boy – the product of jealousy and neglect – has a heart the size of the Appalachian Mountains that can transform the town of Coal Station, VA.
Belle Prater’s Boy touches on some very dark topics, but in a way that kids can grasp. It doesn’t speak down to them. And more than anything, it demonstrates how beautiful humans beings are even in their darkest moments, no matter their physical appearance.
Thanks, Ruth White, for showing us the beauty of Coal Station – and Happy Birthday!
p.s. there’s a sequel! The Search for Belle Prater picks up a year after Belle Prater’s Boy: when the phone rings at the stroke of midnight on Woodrow’s birthday, there’s no one on the other end. But Woodrow knows it was his mom, and he and Gypsy soon take off in search of the missing Belle Prater.