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Hoping Against Hope

Poet Abbott's gem of a debut novel

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Author Lee Smith is quoted on the cover of Tony Abbott's new novel, Leaving Maggie Hope, saying the book is "the most moving coming-of-age story I have read in many years." Smith is right on target. Abbott based the story on his own life, and the strength of his memories breathes real life into the fictional story of David Johnson Lear, his fragmented family, and his boarding school experiences.Abbott says fictionalizing the story gave him more freedom. "The freedom to be able to choose your details in order to make them work is so important to a writer" he says, "and so I loved the freedom of being able to invent characters where I needed them and change things around."

Leaving Maggie Hope tells David's story from the the age of 11 -- "when things really started to go bad" -- to his graduation from the first boarding school he attends at the age of about 14. The Maggie Hope of the title is David's mother. She and his father are divorced at a time when divorce isn't easily accepted by society. Maggie, as seen through David's loving eyes, struggles to be a good mother and fights her own battles with depression and alcohol.

David's own struggle to adjust to life at boarding school is relayed in clean, clear-eyed prose -- it's poignant without being sappy. The story is told from David's point of view, so the reader is inside his head for much of the novel. In the hands of a less gifted writer, this could be claustrophobic, but Abbott makes David's young voice ring true -- so true that the reader cringes at David's pain and embarrassment.

Abbott writes eloquently about the powerlessness of childhood -- when things are decided for you and you can voice no opinion in the matter. David is, however, "the ever hopeful child" -- the one who's smart enough to know how much he doesn't know or how much he doesn't yet understand. He's unsure of himself or who to turn to, but he observes and learns and takes action -- and then doesn't let his mistakes and setbacks bother him too much. Again, Abbott's writing carries the reader along with David's triumphs and happier times -- making those times just as real as the painful ones.

The more regulated life at boarding school becomes the norm for David as he tries to deal with his fragmented family. His mother, in and out of hospitals, is busy fighting her own demons. His beloved older sister, Elizabeth, and his grandparents have their own separate lives, although he sees his sister often during school holidays when he visits her in New York City. His father is a more distant figure with a new wife and new family. David has a guardian angel of sorts in Molly Ariel, once his mother's best friend -- and the person who's paying for his schooling.

Abbott, an award-winning poet and English professor, is the third winner of the Novello Literary Award. He retired from full-time teaching at Davidson College several years ago after more than 37 years on the faculty. He still teaches a class there and various classes in the Davidson/ Charlotte community. His first book of poetry, The Girl in the Yellow Raincoat, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

His students have long appreciated Abbott for his understanding and enthusiasm. Leaving Maggie Hope, though fiction, shows how that compassion and insight may have developed. But you don't have to know Abbott to root for David Lear -- David will win you over, all on his own.

In the interest of full disclosure, Ann Wicker was one of Tony Abbott's students at Davidson College in the 1970s.

Tony Abbott will have a number of signings and readings in the area. Here are some of the dates: October 13 & 15, Novello Festival of Reading Workshops; October 21, 7:30pm, Creative Loafing Carolina Writers Night, Neighborhood Theatre.

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