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by Karen Osborn

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Karen Osborn is the author of three previous novels, Patchwork (a New York Times Notable Book of the Year), Between Earth and Sky, and The River Road. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts with her husband and teaches fiction writing at Mt. Holyoke College and Fairfield University. While growing up in the Midwest, she witnessed a bombing and the


Karen Osborn is the author of three previous novels, Patchwork (a New York Times Notable Book of the Year), Between Earth and Sky, and The River Road. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts with her husband and teaches fiction writing at Mt. Holyoke College and Fairfield University. While growing up in the Midwest, she witnessed a bombing and the resulting conflagration in her small town.

Learn more about Karen Osborn at www.karenosborn.net.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Osborn’s powerful novel, set during the dog days of summer in a small Midwestern town in 1967, begins with a bang when a man bombs the drugstore employing his estranged wife. The tragedy devastates a community just beginning to feel the repercussions of the escalating Vietnam War and the growing civil rights movement, and Osborn focuses on four individuals to map the intersections of local drama and a world in upheaval. Already troubled by decisions confronting members of his flock, a minister falls from grace when the presumed dead bomber surreptitiously seeks his counsel. The minister’s own daughter narrowly escaped the bombing, a coincidence that leaves her confused and ignites her adolescent anger and angst, framing her as a compelling window into the ’60s youth movement. The druggist’s widow quells her grief with an act of redemptive creation, and a policeman desperately hunts the bomber, all the while struggling to train the force’s first black officer amid an atmosphere of casual racism. Osborn (Patchwork), employing a restrained ruthlessness, maintains the tension throughout, and appropriately refuses easy outs for a satisfying conclusion. (Oct.)
From the Publisher

"A unique novel of smalltown America that begins with an explosion so wonderfully described you won't be able to put the book down. Karen Osborn combines considerable literary gifts with a storyteller's skills to produce the unforgettable Centerville."
Anita Shreve, author of Resistance, The Weight of Water, and Rescue

“It’s the summer of 1967; the news is awash with race riots and the escalating war in Vietnam. In the aftermath of a brutal and premeditated act of violence, the residents of a somnolent American town find themselves in a new world full of menace and fear. Karen Osborn’s deeply affecting novel Centerville keeps the incomprehensibility of evil always in focus, as her characters - young, old, brave, cowardly, driven by doubt, and committed to faith - struggle to find a way back to the innocence they once took for granted. In this subtle, beautifully written novel, the reader can almost hear the gates of paradise slamming closed on the American dream.”      
Valerie Martin is the author of nine novels, including Trespass, Mary Reilly, Italian Fever, and Property, three collections of short fiction, and a biography of St. Francis of Assisi, titled Salvation.

"Most writers would stumble over the top describing a blast that literally explodes the personality of a small town. In the hands of a master of craft, like Karen Osborn, devastation is rendered with devastating restraint. You may try to forget Centerville, but you never will." 
Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of The Deep End of the Ocean

"As with In Cold Blood or The Sweet Heareafter, Karen Osborn's beautifully written Centerville uses a single, horrific, small-town act of violence to dissect the values and morals of an entire culture—a culture that is at once violent and brutal, materialistic and superficial, yet capable of moments of heroism, compassion, and redemption. When a novel seems as if its subject isn't past at all but rather pulled right from America's latest cycle of mass murder and senseless carnage, and when that novel does it with Osborn's brilliant prose and deep insight into the dark alleys of our twisted nature, then we can rejoice that perhaps there’s still a chance, albeit a small one, for the human race."
Michael White, author of Beautiful Assassin and Soul Catcher

Library Journal
Osborn (Patchwork; River Road) opens her novel in a small, quaint, Jan Karon-style town in 1967, then has a vengeful ex-husband set off a bomb in the drugstore where his former wife works. Centerville is quickly transformed into a devastated community of residents trying to understand how this could have happened and figure out how to put their lives back together. The story is told from the points of view of four survivors: the reverend who married the murderer and his wife years ago; his teenage daughter, who almost entered the drugstore at the time of the disaster; a victim's widow, who now has three children to raise on her own; and a police officer who was at the scene of the tragedy. VERDICT Lovers of realistic fiction will be pulled into this tiny town to experience its loss and confusion along with its residents. Osborn portrays the emotions surrounding this destructive event in a heartfelt and vivid style, while leaving room for the hope of regrowth and recovery.—Katie Wernz, Kent State Univ. Lib., OH

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West Virginia University Press
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Read an Excerpt


A Novel

By Karen Osborn

West Virginia University Press

Copyright © 2012 Karen Osborn
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-935978-65-7


Ten thousand years ago, glaciers receded across the Midwest of America, leaving the land flatter and laced with streams, lakes, and rivers. Thousands of years ago, on that same land, an ancient people constructed large, earthen mounds. On the flattened earth, they could be seen from miles away. Viewed from above, they resembled cones, circles, squares, octagons, and giant loaves of bread. Centuries later, when the European settlers arrived, the earthen mounds were still present, and they scattered their homesteads, towns, and cities among them.

Centerville was typical of these towns, and in 1967, Sandi Edwards lived there with her parents in a modest, white brick colonial, in the neighborhood behind the church where her father was the minister. Upstairs, she had her own bedroom with two windows. One looked onto the backyard, and from it she could see the red-roofed rim of the town's hospital and the woods next to it that lay between her neighborhood and the church. The other window looked out onto the sidewalk, which connected the neighborhood to the nearby streets leading downtown. For a fourteen-year-old, the house was perfectly positioned, because you could walk out the back door and along the nearby sidewalk and be downtown in thirty minutes.

In the summer of 1967, in a small town like Centerville, it was still possible to drift from one day to the next. Days were defined by what happened during them, and very little happened. Monday became Tuesday, which turned into Wednesday — each one slipping through the fingers like knots tied on a thread. Almost two years earlier, before his death, Malcolm X had referred to the "American nightmare," but in Centerville, people were still experiencing the American dream, which was sleepy and slow, filled with decisions about the latest models of a Ford or a Chevrolet and maybe a new frostless Frigidaire. Places such as Detroit and Newark, where the racial riots were happening that summer, felt far away. The events at My Lai and Kent State hadn't occurred, nor the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.

Early in the afternoon on Saturday, Sandi and her friend Bert walked downtown to Bert's father's drugstore. Sandi had dark hair, which she was attempting to grow out. Recently, her mother had tried to trim the bangs, and they'd argued, as Sandi had wanted them longer so that she could sweep them off her forehead as Bert did with her longer, blond hair. Bert was the kind of girl who could turn a liability like being christened Bertha after a great-grandmother into an asset. For a few years now she'd insisted on Bert, and the name invested her with a kind of power. The nickname Sandi, on the other hand, popular due to a generation of mothers absorbed with Sandra Dee, made Sandi nearly anonymous. Even her decision to spell it with an "i" instead of a "y" hadn't distinguished her. Bert and Sandi had just started high school, and after just a few days, it seemed that Bert already knew everyone, while Sandi disappeared when she walked down the crowded hallways, and if she couldn't find Bert when she stepped into the lunchroom, she wasn't sure where to sit.

The two girls had been close friends since the age of five, and for a couple of years now they'd been walking to the drugstore a few times a week to sit at the soda fountain and paw through magazines or wander up and down the makeup aisle with its shelves of lipsticks, pressed powder, and tubes of mascara. The models pictured in the magazines that year all wore pale colors of lipstick — muted pinks and milky lavenders with hints of silver and names taken from the ocean like Soft Coral or Pink Shell. Their pictures showed long, straight, blond hair and skin that had been darkened with a new product said to produce a tan without the sun. Joyce Fowler, who worked at the drugstore, saved Bert and Sandi samples of lipstick, nail polish, and perfume. Recently Joyce had shown Sandi how to test a lipstick's color by rubbing a little of it on the inside of her arm.

It was the end of August, but the past few days the temperature had reached nearly one hundred, and it was clear that this was still the season for tornados. Yesterday the students had been let out early since the buildings weren't air-conditioned. Today it was even hotter. Nothing moved — the dogwood and mimosa trees that lined the sidewalks, the awnings on the buildings, and the two stoplights, each one block apart, dangling over the intersections. White clouds rimmed the horizon, and the asphalt pavement, which had just been torn up and rolled out new again, gleamed like a black river.

In the sunlight, the drugstore's large front windows glared. Sandi put her hand on the door, but then instead of opening it, she stepped away. Bits of dust floated through the air like slivers of mica as heat poured off the building in waves. It was as if something as ordinary as a wall had descended, forcing her to turn away.

"Why are you stopping?" Bert asked as Sandi let go of the door's handle.

"Let's go down to the bowling alley first," Sandi said, walking away from the store. Her flip-flops slapped against the sidewalk as she shook her dark hair back from her face.

"We said we were going to the drugstore," Bert told her as she turned to follow. "I don't want to go to the bowling alley."

Sandi kept walking. She didn't know why she had changed her mind, but now she told herself that the bowling alley, with its central air conditioning, would be cooler. She had a self-conscious slouch, and her orange-and-white short set that had fit her at the beginning of the summer now looked too small on her. Bert wore a pair of cut-offs and a red halter-top her mother didn't know about.

"The bowling alley won't be as hot," Sandi said.

"My father probably has that air conditioner turned on. And there's all those fans. The drugstore wouldn't have been that hot," Bert argued as she traipsed behind.

"Maybe Carl and Harry are at the bowling alley," Sandi told her, referring to Bert's sixteen-year-old brother and his best friend, a boy Sandi had a crush on. "Isn't that where they said they were going?"

"Great. You just want to see Harry, and I already get enough of Carl at home. Way enough."

Sandi wasn't sure what to say back. The idea that the boys would be there had been an afterthought, but she felt herself blush just the same. The bowling alley, located a few buildings down from the drugstore, had a brick front with no windows and a door of darkened glass. "I hate bowling," Bert said, pushing past Sandi as they reached the door.

They slid inside quickly, and everything went briefly dark. It was something Sandi loved about the bowling alley, the inside was like a cave. Beside her, Bert let out a groan. "We don't have to bowl," she told Bert, standing next to the counter waiting for her eyes to adjust. "We can just hang out for a few minutes."

"I wanted to get a magazine," Bert said. "And a root beer float."

The bowling alley was one of the few buildings downtown with central air conditioning, and today it was turned up high. Sandi shivered as Mr. Jameson folded up his newspaper, slipping it under the counter.

"How about a game, girls? You want to rent some shoes?"

"No, thanks," Sandi told him.

"No way," Bert muttered.

As Sandi's eyes adjusted to the lighting, she glanced over at the eight bowling lanes. All of them were empty except for the last one where Carl and Harry were playing. As Sandi and Bert stood watching, Carl rolled one of the balls, and it thunked against the floor and spun into the gutter. Then Harry turned around, pivoting as he scooped a ball from the trough, his movements smooth and fluid. Sandi had heard he was helping to run the school newspaper, which she was thinking of signing up for.

"Hey, Bert and Sandi," he called out, noticing them as he moved to the top of the lane. "You want to take us on?"

Sandi followed Bert over to where they were standing. "If you think I'm going to play against my brother, you're crazy," Bert told them.

Carl glanced up. "Scared?"

"No one cares." Bert brushed her hair back from her forehead, tilting one hip higher than the other, the foot forward. She shaved her legs every morning, and they looked polished and darkened from tanning lotion and the sun.

"When I get my driver's license, you'll be begging for rides," Carl told her. He bent over and lifted another ball. He was wearing jeans and a T-shirt with his baseball team's name, Centerville Pioneers, in blue letters. His dark blond hair was cut short and acne mottled his forehead. He glanced up at Harry, who stood at the top of the lane holding his ball. "What are you waiting for?"

Harry hesitated, turning around as if he wanted to say something. Then he smoothly swung the ball back behind him, dropping down into a lunge. The ball hit the floor. It rolled toward the pins and cracked as it arrived at the end of the lane. Then a boom like thunder sounded from outside, and the lights of the bowling alley turned off.

"Shit," Carl muttered.

"That was a strike," Harry said. "I bet it was."

The blackness of the room was sudden and complete. Sandi couldn't see a thing. "Stay where you are, I'm getting a flashlight," Mr. Jameson called out.

"Maybe lightning hit the building," Sandi said.

"As soon as the lights come back on, I'm getting out of here," Bert told her.

"I've got a flashlight," Mr. Jameson shouted. A small, precise circle of light formed at the other end of the room. They felt something pounding outside, as if a train were about to come straight through the door.

"Jesus. Is that a tornado?" Harry asked.

Just then, the door to the bowling alley cracked open, and Sandi knew. She didn't understand what was happening, but she knew it was terrible, and she knew it was not a storm or a tornado.

"Get out of the building," someone yelled from outside. "Get everyone out!"

The flashlight's beam circled toward the entrance. As the door swung open, they could see Mr. Jameson stepping through it.

"Holy Christ!" Mr. Jameson's voice echoed from across the room as the beam from his flashlight scuttled back across the floor. "Get out of here! All you kids, get the hell out!"

Feeling their way, they tried to move as fast as they could, squeezing around the edges of ball racks and lane markers, bumping into benches. A metal waste can tipped over, crashing to the floor.

"Sorry, Mr. Jameson," Sandi called out, falling against Harry in a fit of embarrassment as she bent to pick it up.

"Leave it," Mr. Jameson yelled. The narrow beam of light swept across the floor as Bert tripped on a step. "Watch yourselves."

They stumbled to the entrance, where Mr. Jameson grabbed each one of them in turn by the shoulder, shoving them toward the door. "Quick. There's a fire."

"Why didn't the alarm go off?" Harry asked.

"The electrical outage must have disabled it."

What Sandi saw as she was pushed through the door made no sense. A wall of fire stood several hundred feet away from her. The flames swallowed the three stories of the building that was the drugstore. Then, Bert was sprinting toward it, screaming, "My father's in there!"

Small pieces of the fire dotted the sidewalk and street, and smoke filled the air. Above them, long plumes twisted like kites. Bert ran through a burst of fire, and it didn't seem to touch her. "Dad!" she yelled.

Sandi wasn't aware of her legs as she zigzagged across the pavement around spots of flames, lunging to miss the larger ones. The only fires she had seen before were the ones her father sometimes built behind the metal screen of their fireplace in the depths of winter. Once a small kitchen fire in her house scorched the walls, coating them with black soot. She had been in the front of the house cutting out ballet costumes from a booklet of paper dolls, and her father came as the fire alarm sounded and hurried her out the door before she even smelled the smoke. Later she'd found her cutouts scattered and trodden upon from where her father had rushed back inside to use the fire extinguisher. Afterward, instead of feeling frightened, she had felt a new sense of safety, as if anytime something dangerous happened, she would be rushed away while the danger was snuffed out.

By the time she reached Bert, they were so close to the fire Sandi felt as if they were inside it. The building no longer looked like a building. A three-story wall of flame blasted heat and the air throbbed. "Bert!" she screamed as loud as she could over the roar. She reached out and grabbed Bert's hand.

"My dad's in there!" Bert screamed back. She turned for a second and looked at Sandi, her face bright red with the heat.

More flames sprang up around them, the roar from the fire pounding like a hammer. It was so loud Sandi couldn't hear anything else, so hot she couldn't feel anything. "We have to get back!" Sandi screamed, jerking hard on Bert's hand.

"Let go!" Bert yelled, glaring at Sandi as she shoved her away.

Sandi stumbled backwards as Bert turned and ran, her red halter-top a smear of color against the smoke.

"Bert!" Sandi screamed. Bert's hair was white next to the fire. It stood out from her head as if she had stuck her finger in an electrical socket. She took several long running steps, and when she stopped, she was so close to the fire that she seemed to be inside it. She raised her arms to the sky, her hands spread wide. Sandi could see the pink nail polish Bert had applied the night before with careful strokes.

"Beauty is a product-based phenomenon," Bert had told her, holding the tiny brush between two fingers. Sandi had sat on the floor of Bert's room thinking about that statement for a long time.

The sound that came out of Bert now couldn't be defined. She screamed over and over. Her hair gleamed as if lit with sudden combustion. "Noooo!" She collapsed onto the pavement, as a burst of flames dropped from the sky next to her. "Nooooo," she wailed inside a ring of fire.

All around them now, fire dropped out of the sky. A woman who looked strangely familiar to Sandi sat nearby on the pavement in a flowered sundress. Several feet away, a white straw handbag lay with its contents spewed onto the pavement. Sandi spotted a tube of lipstick made by Revlon. The drugstore had been running a sale on them, and earlier Bert had talked about buying one.

"Get back!" someone yelled. Suddenly, a policeman grabbed Sandi by the shoulders and shook her. She noted that his skin was dark and there was an ashen smear across his face. His shirtsleeve was ripped. "Move back!" he yelled.

A few minutes later, he ran past, half dragging, half carrying Bert. "You! Get back!" he screamed at Sandi again. There was another man helping him, a man wearing a white jacket slashed with blackened ash. For a second, he stood so close to Sandi that she saw a clip with the man's name on it. With a start, she realized he was Mr. Freeman, the drugstore's pharmacist. "Get as far away from the fire as you can!" the policeman yelled at them. Somewhere a siren beat red, piercing the sound of the fire.

Sandi moved toward the curb, but she couldn't feel her feet. She couldn't connect the pieces of what she saw. The drugstore was a tower of flames, and there were small fires on the pavement in front of her and behind her. Smoke passed through her like air, and the places that had melted on the pavement glittered with an oily sheen. On the sidewalk where Bert sat, hunched over, others gathered, coughing. She recognized several of them, but in this context none of them felt familiar. A woman shouted, and a man raised his arm, pointing. Bert had stopped screaming. The street filled with fire, flames skimming the surface of the pavement. The policeman and Mr. Freeman were gone.

"Only one fire engine?" the man who was pointing yelled. "Where is the rest of the goddamn fire department?"

Sandi closed her eyes. Nothing about the scene felt real, and she couldn't imagine yet that anyone she knew was actually in the fire. If Mr. Freeman was still alive then Bert's father must be also, she told herself. Joyce must be alive, too. Just a few days ago, Joyce had given her a bottle of perfume with a Yardley's label on it and offered to curl her hair for her sometime. She had said Sandi could come over to Joyce's sister's house where Joyce was living now. Her sister worked downtown as a hairdresser, and Joyce was going to ask her to help them. Ever since Joyce had mentioned it, Sandi had been imagining the kind of hairstyle they would give her. She wanted it to look puffed out at the sides and flipped up on the ends, the way Joyce wore hers.

Sandi heard more sirens. The sound seemed to come from high above, as if it were dropping down on them with the pieces of fire. When she opened her eyes and looked up, all she could see was smoke. One of the fire engines was parked not far from where she stood. She watched the firemen in their dark coats and hats. Under the smoke they looked diminished, like a small colony of ants scrambling to protect their hill. One of them held a hose, and another one was waving his arms around, shouting orders.


Excerpted from Centerville by Karen Osborn. Copyright © 2012 Karen Osborn. Excerpted by permission of West Virginia University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Karen Osborn is the author of three previous novels, Patchwork (a New York Times Notable Book of the Year), Between Earth and Sky, and The River Road. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts with her husband and teaches fiction writing at Mt. Holyoke College and Fairfield University. While growing up in the Midwest, she witnessed a bombing and the resulting conflagration in her small town.

Learn more about Karen Osborn at www.karenosborn.net.

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Centerville 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best books I have read in quite a while. It depicts small town American life in the late 50's-early60's and readily shows the truths behind the perfect veneer.The author is very capable at character development and the story packs a big wallop.Interesting and grabbing...