Charlotte author Karon Luddy has written a gem of a coming-of-age story in her debut novel, Spelldown: The Big-Time Dreams of a Small-Town Word Whiz.
Karlene Kaye Bridges is the middle child of a hardworking mother and a loving but alcoholic father in the small South Carolina town of Red Clover. As the story opens, her beloved older sister, Gloria Jean, is getting married. Karlene, however, is stuck babysitting with her younger brothers, twins Josh and Noah, while her parents go with her sister and husband-to-be to the courthouse. Karlene's not bored, however, as she continues her quest into the two-volume dictionary that came with the encyclopedias her mom bought. Thirteen-year-old Karlene is obsessed with words.
Luddy's Karlene has just the right mix of questions and fears of a small town girl in the South in the 1960s. She's smart but not too self-possessed or self-conscious. Set in 1968 -- a tumultuous time in the nation -- Karlene stays mostly focused on learning words for spelling bees and her other schoolwork. As she studies, she copes with "growing pains" as well as family problems brought on by her father's alcoholism. Her success in the competitive spelling bees is a testament to her ability to focus despite these distractions, large and small.
"Like Karlene," Luddy says on her Web site (www.karonluddy.com), "I have always been obsessed with words. I also used to be a very good speller. In seventh grade, I won the school and county bees, but lost midway through the regional. I was unnaturally disappointed -- and played 'I'm a Loser' over and over on my record player."
As Karlene starts the eighth grade, a new teacher, Mrs. Amanda Harrison, enters her life. Mrs. Harrison is different from most of the teachers Karlene has had recently -- she brims with enthusiasm and genuine interest in her students. Karlene baby-sits for the Harrisons, and Mrs. Harrison becomes Karlene's spelling coach and almost a second mother.
Luddy explains her inspiration for Mrs. Harrison. "My 6th grade teacher, Perry Gardner, rocked my world," she says. "She and her family showed me so much kindness when I needed it the most.
"She moved away when I was in seventh grade," Luddy adds, "but I called her once or twice over the years. One day in late August 2003 while writing the book, I couldn't get her off my mind, so I started searching the web. An obituary popped up and I learned that she had died a couple of weeks before in Rock Hill! It pained me greatly that she had been that close by and I had not known it."
Sprinkled throughout the book are references to popular songs of the 1960s that those of us who grew up with the music will "get" immediately. Plus, Luddy makes repeated references to Karlene's favorite Beatle, Ringo. (In the context of knowing all you need to know about someone by knowing who their favorite Beatle is, we know that Karlene is a bit goofy in a good and funny way, but also steady and dependable.)
I was also fascinated by Luddy's use of Latin terms throughout the story -- Mrs. Harrison is Karlene's Latin teacher -- so the terms seem to spring naturally from Karlene's fascination with words in all forms.
Luddy gets Karlene's voice exactly right -- Karlene may seem a bit self-absorbed but what teenager isn't? Karlene is in that limbo time before her real awakening to sex -- but we see hints, for example, when she thinks about being kissed by her older friend Billy Ray. She also knows there's a lesson in her sister getting married and giving up her other dreams, even if she can't yet figure out the importance of that lesson.
The scenes between Karlene and her dad are achingly real, yet there's an undercurrent of hope. "I also grew up in an alcoholic home," Luddy says, "which was like being in an undeclared war. Alcoholism is a shame-based disease that creates an atmosphere of denial of the situation. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to write about alcoholism -- especially the recovery process. Alcoholism can be a gloomy subject, but miracles happen in recovery all the time. My father enjoyed sobriety for the last 30 years of his life."
Simon & Schuster has listed Spelldown as a book for young readers, but adults will find much to like here -- Luddy's love for words and use of language shines through for readers of any age. And this would be a great book for children and parents to read together.
Karon Luddy will sign Spelldown at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 27, at Joseph-Beth SouthPark and at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 24, at Borders-Morrocroft. In the name of full disclosure, Luddy's daughter Charlotte Bowman once worked at Creative Loafing, and writer Ann Wicker and Luddy went through the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program together.