One of the reasons that I love the NC Battle of the Books so much is that it encourages kids to read things that are outside of their normal scope or favorite genre. Here in this house we are getting a jump start on next year’s list. The first one that I finished is Ashes to Asheville, by Sarah Dooley. This had been on my radar, but only because we had been given an advanced review copy in a game at our local bookstore.
Ashes to Asheville is a very different book than the ones we normally read. The entire book takes place in a 24 hour period and is told from the perspective of 12 year old Ophelia “Fella” Madison-Culvert. The book is an emotional roller coaster that takes on the topics of what makes a family and the process of grieving. It also touches on respecting people’s wishes, even after they have died.
After Mama Lacy’s death, Fella was forced to move in with her grandmother, Mrs. Madison. The move brought Fella all sorts of comforts she wasn’t used to at home, but it also meant saying goodbye to her sister Zoey (a.k.a. Zany) and her other mother, Mama Shannon. Though Mama Shannon fought hard to keep Fella, it was no use. The marriage act is still a few years away and the courts thought Fella would be better off with a blood relation. Already heartbroken, Fella soon finds herself alone in Mrs. Madison’s house, grieving both the death of her mother and the loss of her entire family.
Then one night, Zany shows up at Mrs. Madison’s house determined to fulfill Mama Lacy’s dying wish: to have her ashes spread over the lawn of the last place they were all happy as a family. Of course, this means stealing Mama Lacy’s ashes and driving hundreds of miles in the middle of night to Asheville, North Carolina. Their adventure takes one disastrous turn after another, but their impulsive journey helps them rediscover the bonds that truly make them sisters.
I really enjoyed reading this book, but I’m not sure that a middle-grader would pick it up if it wasn’t assigned or unless they came from a family with same-sex parents.
Overwhelmingly, this is a story of grief and of 4 people who desperately miss one woman but haven’t allowed themselves to grieve. Fella is mad at Mama Shannon because she feels neglected. Zany is mad because their life right now is so difficult. Mama Shannon is incredibly sad about losing her wife and daughter at the same time. Mrs. Madison misses her daughter and doesn’t know how to connect with Fella. Zany resorts to a crazy act of stealing her mother’s ashes to bring them back to the last place they were truly happy – Asheville.
The book is a road-trip, but that trip is a vehicle for Fella to grow and figure out how to heal her family. The notion of the two girls driving through the middle of the night to get from West Virginia to Asheville, NC is a little insane, but it worked. Of course, they confronted problem after problem and yet continued on. On the road they wound up also meeting another teen dealing with the prospect of losing a parent. Adam is on his way to the hospital where his father is dying. When he finally gets there, he doesn’t know what to say. It winds up being Fella that helps him and at the same time helps herself. As an adult, I had some issues with the idea of the girls getting into the car of a stranger, but Adam had an important role in Fella understanding death.
This is also a book that tackles the idea of allowing people to follow their dreams and their personal choices. Zany wants to scatter Mama Lucy’s ashes in Asheville because that’s what Lucy wrote to her family in a letter before she died. But it is hard for Fella, Shannon, and Mrs. Madison to let her go. Fella wanted to live with Mama Shannon and Zany and begged Mrs. Madison not to take her away, but Mrs. Madison did what she thought was right. More than anything, it is the entire LGBTQ community asking to be heard, to be allowed to make their choices and love who they want to love.
When Mama Shannon and Mrs. Madison meet up with the girls, there are so many truths finally exposed. I was especially moved when Mama Shannon said the following:
“Lacy and I were raising the girls together. We were a family. It doesn’t matter what the law says. It doesn’t matter we weren’t allowed to get married or to adopt each other’s kids. We chose our family and we built our family and you don’t have to agree with Lacy’s choices, but you ought to respect them, especially since she isn’t here to defend herself.”
I thought this was a beautiful book. I hope that J enjoys it and am very curious what the rest of our Battle of the Books team will think about it.