London: The spirit of Scout Finch flickers in the small town of Springvale, where 13-year-old Nellie Peck — hobbled by thick glasses, a growth spurt and a family threatening to unravel — is teetering into adolescence.
Nellie, the precocious central figure in Mary McGarry Morris` new novel, ‘Light From a Distant Star,’ prides herself on her keen ability to read other people, worships her intellectual, high-minded father, and studies the hand-to-hand combat techniques from an old World War II manual. But all of that is challenged during a long, languid summer when the gaps between perception and reality start to become achingly clear.
"Into her thoughts came one of those conversations a kid half listens to but doesn`t quite get, the tangled strands now suddenly making sense," reads a passage where Nellie realizes "the difference between literal truth and ideal truth."
During those hot days, the fabric of Nellie`s family — already faltering from financial troubles and her older sister`s search for her "real" father — is torn further by unexpected and ugly violence. And Nellie`s own moral fiber is put to the test as she struggles to do the right thing, while those around her ignore her cries for help.
Morris` finely crafted prose — simple and lyrical — captures perfectly that sliver of pre-adolescence when the very world around us seems to shudder and shift, when the adults we admire suddenly reveal their flaws, and everything we treasure seems to be slipping away.
"But what she felt most keenly in the cavelike closeness of the snow-covered car was the great expanse between them," Nellie thinks, as she starts to see her father in a new light. "The one fixed point in her life, and he was a blur. If she hadn`t known her own father, who then could she know?"
The journey of Nellie, smart, independent and unwilling to bend, into being a traditional girl, recalls the central thread of "To Kill a Mockingbird," where violence and tragedy also propel Scout Finch into a deeper understanding of human nature.
But unlike that book, in which Atticus Finch forms an unassailable center of honor and integrity, ‘Light From a Distant Star’ portrays a muddled adult world, where honor can often hide weakness, success can mask cruelty, and even heroes can harbor dark impulses.
Morris, author of ‘A Dangerous Woman’ and ‘Songs in Ordinary Time,’ nimbly laces her latest novel with a growing sense of dread, hinting at the awfulness that is about to enter the lives of Nellie and her fragile family. But is that awfulness the violence itself, the aftermath, or simply the terrible knowledge that comes when all veneers are stripped away?
The lessons of ‘Light From a Distant Star’ may not be as uplifting as the clearly drawn morality of Harper Lee`s classic, but Nellie Peck`s stubborn belief in the goodness of a fellow human being offers a much-needed counterpoint to our culture of cynicism and moral muddiness.