Ferris Beach by Jill McCorkle

Certain events and experiences in childhood can shape your life and bring forth associations in adulthood of two seemingly unrelated things.  For instance, I always associate Fall season evenings with muscadines and memories of riding in my parents’ champagne-hued Maxima to dance class listening to some melodramatic song by Phil Collins, etc.  Any rainy day can take me right back to long happy afternoons spent at my Granny’s big white house on Main Street, listening to her read Edgar Allen Poe and quoting other literary works in conversation with me. There are songs that when I hear them, can make me feel as if all the years of growth and maturity didn’t even happen ….and I am 15 years old again in my old bedroom with the windows open on a summer night listening to “One Headlight” by the Wallflowers.  All these experiences have shaped my life and my memories/associations.  I didn’t realize until recently that a book could take part in that shaping.

I read Ferris Beach by Jill McCorkle when I was maybe 12 years old…I can’t remember exactly.  The title and bits of the story have always stuck out in my mind so I recently read it again and felt a lot of associations throughout the book.  It is narrated by an observant and insightful adolescent girl named Kate Burns, who has a birthmark on her face that is shaped like Italy.  From her viewpoint, you are invited into the lives of her parents, estranged cousin Angela, and the family across the street (the Rhodeses) to name a few.  Set in South Carolina in the 70s, it is the time of avocado-colored appliances, rare wall-to-wall carpet, and the fondue trend.

The Rhodes family:  The mother, Mo Rhodes is dark-haired and beautiful, wants purple shag carpet, is always barefoot with painted toenails, makes smores on a rainy day, turns the front yard into a Japanese stone garden, and wants to name her baby after Buddy Holly (Buddy for a boy and Holly for a girl).  Her daughter, Misty (Kate’s best friend), has orange hair, is slightly overweight, wants to be beautiful and have a boyfriend and wants to be a majorette.  Misty’s father and brother Dean are present but don’t have qualities worth commenting on.

Kate’s parents:  Fred and Cleva Burns really do love each other, but have a lot of tension between them because of Angela.  Fred collects obituaries from the paper in a cigar box and enjoys inventing new ones.  Cleva is practical and reserved and is never very warm towards Kate.  She frequently gives lectures on all the reasons not to complain about a birthmark when so many children are in terrible situations.  She completes each lecture by reminding Kate of a poem called “Lord Forgive me when I Whine”.

Angela:  Kate has a fantasy-like idea of her (“glittering and shining, rare like a jewel”) that slowly crumbles throughout the book.  She appears to have a glamorous breezy life..but we soon find out that she has bad taste in men.  She goes through several abusive and dysfunctional relationships.

Sally Jean: (probably the most comical character in the book)  I won’t say what her role is because I don’t want to give away a major occurrence in the book.  I’ll just say that she has a very interesting vocabulary and loves to make embroidered proverb samplers (“A Recipe For Friendship: a dash of kindness, a sprinkle of tenderness” or in the bathroom “We aim to please.  You aim too, please.”)

Her vocabulary consists of words that almost sound right but not quite and have a totally different meaning.  Examples:  a) She wants to lay sod so she tells people that she will sodomize her yard.  B)   She compliments Mrs. Poole’s home by telling her it is anesthetically pleasing.

One particular part of this book had stuck in my mind for a long time and I didn’t even know it was from this story until I read it again.  “Sally Jean had once seen Liberace in an airport, and she used this as a way to mark all of the events of her life.  “Well now, let’s see, that was before I saw Liberace” or “That was just about the time I saw Liberace.”….”I like to have died when I saw him there”…”Sequins. I’ve never seen the likes of so many sequins, and I thought to myself how long did it take to sew them all?  He made Elvis look plain, that’s how flashy it was to see Liberace.  It was dazzling.  C)  It was absolutely extraneous.”…D)  ”the whole airport went akimbo with excitement.”

I enjoyed reading this work of fiction as an adult just as much as when I was a child.  That proves that it can stand the test of time.  It is a light and pleasant read that paints a colorful picture with words.  This book is just as nostalgic as a pair of cut-glass salt and pepper shakers…in other words, it brings to mind sentimental bric-a-brac.  Looking to escape into a world of sentimentality?  Try “Ferris Beach” by Jill McCorkle.

Pages 352  FOA page total: 3,850 (The total number of pages reported upon by the Friends of Atticus.)

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