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Two Novel Approaches to Coming of Age

The coming-of-age story isn't new, but a couple of new novels based on this theme stand out — mostly for good reasons.

First is Susan Gregg Gilmore's light-as-air novel, Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen. This Georgia story starts so light I almost had to twist my own arm to keep reading. Our narrator, Catherine Grace Cline, is a motherless preacher's daughter with a dutiful Baptist boyfriend, and a lot of illusions.

More than anything, Catherine Grace wants to leave tiny Ringgold, Georgia. Ringgold is the type of sleepy town where folks don't do much except go to church and grow tomatoes, and a girl's biggest thrill is walking to the Dairy Queen for a dilly bar.

Catherine Grace wants to quit town so bad that she'd almost curse — or tear up her recipe for strawberry jam. Even after she succeeds in escaping from Ringgold and landing a job in Atlanta, the book still reads like meringue (when you really want pie). But, darn, as our heroine might say, I'm glad I kept going, because before it ends, the preacher's daughter makes a sad return home, and all of those illusions fall away, revealing everyone — from Daddy to her old boyfriend — in a different light.

The main character in our second coming-of-age novel couldn't be more different. The Flowers, by Dagoberto Gilb, centers on a teenage Chicano boy named Sonny Bravo, who is living with his mother and her new gringo contractor husband in a sweltering, two-bedroom apartment somewhere out west.

The apartment building also happens to be home to a lot of folks who don't smell so sweet. We meet a racist construction worker, a dodgy car salesman, the lusty wife of a drug dealer, and a young girl caring for her infant brother who declares that she sometimes hates being Mexican.

Sonny takes to stealing money and fooling around with the dealer's wife, but deep down he really wants the girl.

"She was so chula," he says. "Her eyes, the white of them, the black of them. Her eyelashes. Her eyebrows. Her nose. Her cheeks. Her lips. Her chin. Her neck. Each strand of her hair in place as alive as the ones that floated in the breeze while I stood at the open door, wishing I knew how to make her kiss."

Along with Sonny's daydreams come lessons about life, and though the rip-and-run of city life is quite different from the ice cream and tomatoes of Ringgold, Ga., through it all, there is a taste of something sweet: the faint hope of love in the offing, even as sirens scream out above an angry city.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Cheuse died on July 31, 2015. He had been in a car accident in California earlier in the month. He was 75. Listen to NPR Special Correspondent Susan Stamburg's retrospective on his life and career.