As one of the bestselling writers of legal thrillers like Absolute Power, David Baldacci is known for his hair-raising plots and fast-paced suspense. But in a significant departure from his usual fare (though the end result is no less compelling), Baldacci slows things down a bit for his latest saga, Wish You Well, a story he culled from his own family's history and experiences. It's a coming-of-age tale reminiscent of that timeless classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, where the setting -- Virginia mountain coal country in the post-Depression '40s -- is as much a character as any of the people who walk the pages.
The lives of 12-year-old Lou Cardinal and her eight-year-old brother, Oscar ("Oz"), are forever altered when an auto accident takes the life of their writer father and leaves their mother in a catatonic state. Used to the hectic bustle of New York City, they find themselves transplanted to the mountain cabin home of their great-grandmother, Louisa Mae Cardinal. Their new home has no electricity or running water, and their food comes not from any grocery store but from the barn and the land. Their new neighbors are simple folk, many of them poor, uneducated, and worked to the bone. But beneath them all is The Mountain, with its power to mesmerize and nurture their minds and their souls.
Though Lou rebels against her new life at first, she eventually grows to appreciate her hardscrabble existence, rising before dawn to milk the cows, attending school in a one-room schoolhouse, and then working till dusk to prepare, plant, and harvest crops. Her great-grandmother's simple lifestyle, boundless spirit, and obvious love of The Mountain become contagious. But there is plenty of ugliness here, too, not the least of which is the pervasive poverty and prejudicial ignorance subscribed to by some. When a greedy corporate entity enters the picture, Baldacci takes his readers into territory more familiar, culminating the tale in a highly satisfying David-and-Goliath-style courtroom battle.
The title is an apt one, a reference to Oz and Lou's childish wishes and their belief in things wondrous and magical, a belief that often slams up against the harsh truths of reality. Yet in the end, something magical does prevail. And although all the characters in this tale may not survive, the mystical allure of The Mountain and its effect on those who come to know it, does.
Wish You Well has plenty of appealing elements.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Baldacci is writing what? That waspish question buzzed around publishing circles when Warner announced that the bestselling author of The Simple Truth, Absolute Power and other turbo-thrillers--an author generally esteemed more for his plots than for his characters or prose--was trying his hand at mainstream fiction, with a mid-century period novel set in the rural South, no less. Shades of John Grisham and A Painted House. But guess what? Clearly inspired by his subject--his maternal ancestors, he reveals in a foreword, hail from the mountain area he writes about here with such strength--Baldacci triumphs with his best novel yet, an utterly captivating drama centered on the difficult adjustment to rural life faced by two children when their New York City existence shatters in an auto accident. That tragedy, which opens the book with a flourish, sees acclaimed but impecunious riter Jack Cardinal dead, his wife in a coma and their daughter, Lou, 12, and son, Oz, seven, forced to move to the southwestern Virginia farm of their aged great-grandmother, Louisa. Several questions propel the subsequent story with vigor. Will the siblings learn to accept, even to love, their new life? Will their mother regain consciousness? And--in a development that takes the narrative into familiar Baldacci territory for a gripping legal showdown--will Louisa lose her land to industrial interests? Baldacci exults in high melodrama here, and it doesn't always work: the death of one major character will wring tears from the stoniest eyes, but the reappearance of another, though equally hanky-friendly, is outright manipulative. Even so, what the novel offers above all is bone-deep emotional truth, as its myriad characters--each, except for one cartoonish villain, as real as readers' own kin--grapple not just with issues of life and death but with the sufferings and joys of daily existence in a setting detailed with finely attuned attention and a warm sense of wonder. This novel has a huge heart--and millions of readers are going to love it. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Although this story starts out slowly, by page 50 or so it has become a page-turner. A car trip turns tragic for 12-year-old New Yorker Louisa Mae Cardinal (Lou) and her younger brother Oscar (Oz) when their idolized father Jack is killed and their mother is badly injured. As there seems to be no hope for her recovery, the children are sent to their father's grandmother, their great-grandmother Louisa, in rural Virginia. It's 1940, but the Civil War is still being fought in the town and on the schoolyard. Louisa's farmhouse is old-fashioned, with no electricity or indoor plumbing, and the farm holds almost nothing to interest the city children. What it means for them, at least at the beginning, is hard work. Lou disagrees with everyone about everything. Oz talks to their comatose mother for hours, feeling that some time she will come back to themshe must. When Lou realizes what he's doing, she fears for his sanity. She is sure her mother won't recover, but she exercises her mother's muscles every day anyway. Gradually she begins to make friends and gets more used to the work. When she manages to learn to plow a field with the mule, and Louisa gives her a horse of her own to ride, she begins to see the land as her heritage. Just in time, too, as a gas company has discovered that there is gas buried in a deserted coal mine on the farm. Lou knows a lot of cheating has been going on, and, with the help of a lawyer who was in love with her mother, determines to do something about it. An excellent portrait of race and class distinction of the time and place, and of a young woman growing up. And a good read. Category: Paperback Fiction. KLIATT Codes: SARecommended for seniorhigh school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, Warner, 370p., Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Judith H. Silverman; Chevy Chase, MD
Baldacci (Total Control) turns from political thrillers to historical fiction in this affecting novel whose richly textured setting of southwestern Virginia in the 1940s draws on the reminiscences of his mother and grandmother. After a car accident kills their father and leaves their mother unresponsive, 12-year-old Lou Cardinal and her younger brother, Oz, go to live with their great-grandmother Louisa. Wrestling a living from the mountain farm is hard work, but slowly a love for the mountains seeps into Lou's being. The novel's villains are corporations that plunder the mountains' coal and lumber resources before seeking profits elsewhere. Louisa's refusal to sell her land pits her against her impoverished neighbors as well as a powerful company. Defended by a local lawyer and family friend, her case appears hopeless. The denouement may be too tidy, but readers won't object. Whether Baldacci's fans will enjoy this change of pace remains to be seen, but readers of historical fiction will welcome his debut in the genre. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/00.]--Kathy Piehl, Minnesota State Univ., Mankato Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
From the Publisher
Baldacci is known for his thrillers, but after WISH YOU WELL the real mystery is why he doesn't write more stories like it. He shows strong insight into the minds of children by telling the story of 12-year-old Lou and her 7-year-old brother, Oz, who are learning to live with their great-grandmother in Virginia after the death of their father. Norma Lana brings so much vigor to the story the listener will be tempted to stand up and cheer, or reach for a tissue. This is one of those performances that make us late for work. Lana speaks in the mountain tongue so well that there's no question of its authenticity. There's a lot of Baldacci in the storyhe comes from the same mountains and it shows in the sheer joy of the writing. M.S. Winner of AudioFile Earphones Award © AudioFile 2007, Portland, Maine [Published: OCT/ NOV 07]
Lana reads with less of a mountain drawl than might be strictly true to life, but for the sake of most listeners' ability to understand, that's probably a good thing. She does make each of her main characters a distinct individual, an advatage not to be underestimated.
Read an Excerpt
THE AIR WAS MOIST, THE COMING RAIN telegraphed by plump, gray clouds, and the blue sky fast fading. The 1936 four-door Lincoln Zephyr sedan moved down the winding road at a decent, if unhurried, pace. The car's interior was filled with the inviting aromas of warm sourdough bread, baked chicken, and peach and cinnamon pie from the picnic basket that sat so temptingly between the two children in the backseat.
Louisa Mae Cardinal, twelve years old, tall and rangy, her hair the color of sun-dappled straw and her eyes blue, was known simply as Lou. She was a pretty girl who would almost certainly grow into a beautiful woman. But Lou would fight tea parties, pigtails, and frilly dresses to the death. And somehow win. It was just her nature.
The notebook was open on her lap, and Lou was filling the blank pages with writings of importance to her, as a fisherman does his net. And from the girl's pleased look, she was landing fat cod with every pitch and catch. As always, she was very intent on her writing. Lou came by that trait honestly, as her father had such fever to an even greater degree than his daughter.
On the other side of the picnic basket was Lou's brother, Oz. The name was a contraction of his given one, Oscar. He was seven, small for his age, though there was the promise of height in his long feet. He did not possess the lanky limbs and athletic grace of his sister. Oz also lacked the confidence that so plainly burned in Lou's eyes. And yet he held his worn stuffed bear with the unbreakable clench of a wrestler, and he had a way about him that naturally warmed other's souls. After meeting Oz Cardinal,one came away convinced that he was a little boy with a heart as big and giving as God could bestow on lowly, conflicted mortals.
Jack Cardinal was driving. He seemed unaware of the approaching storm, or even the car's other occupants. His slender fingers drummed on the steering wheel. The tips of his fingers were callused from years of punching the typewriter keys, and there was a permanent groove in the middle finger of his right hand where the pen pressed against it. Badges of honor, he often said.
As a writer, Jack assembled vivid landscapes densely populated with flawed characters who, with each turn of the page, seemed more real than one's family. Readers would often weep as a beloved character perished under the writer's nib, yet the distinct beauty of the language never overshadowed the blunt force of the story, for the themes imbedded in Jack Cardinal's tales were powerful indeed. But then an especially well-tooled line would come along and make one smile and perhaps even laugh aloud, because a bit of humor was often the most effective tool for painlessly driving home a serious point.
Jack Cardinal's talents as a writer had brought him much critical acclaim, and very little money. The Lincoln Zephyr did not belong to him, for luxuries such as automobiles, fancy or plain, seemed forever beyond his reach. The car had been borrowed for this special outing from a friend and admirer of Jack's work. Certainly the woman sitting next to him had not married Jack Cardinal for money.
Amanda Cardinal usually bore well the drift of her husband's nimble mind. Even now her expression signaled good-natured surrender to the workings of the man's imagination, which always allowed him escape from the bothersome details of life. But later, when the blanket was spread and the picnic food was apportioned, and the children wanted to play, she would nudge her husband from his literary alchemy. And yet today Amanda felt a deeper concern as they drove to the park. They needed this outing together, and not simply for the fresh air and special food. This surprisingly warm late winter's day was a godsend in many ways. She looked at the threatening sky.
Go away, storm, please go away now.
To ease her skittish nerves, Amanda turned and looked at Oz and smiled. It was hard not to feel good when looking at the little boy, though he was a child easily frightened as well. Amanda had often cradled her son when Oz had been seized by a nightmare. Fortunately, his fearful cries would be replaced by a smile when Oz would at last focus on her, and she would want to hold her son always, keep him safe always.
Oz's looks came directly from his mother, while Lou had a pleasing variation of Amanda's long forehead and her father's lean nose and compact angle of jaw. And yet if Lou were asked, she would say she took after her father only. This did not reflect disrespect for her mother, but signaled that, foremost, Lou would always see herself as Jack Cardinal's daughter.
Amanda turned back to her husband. "Another story?" she asked as her fingers skimmed Jack's forearm.
The man's mind slowly rocked free from his latest concocting and Jack looked at her, a grin riding on full lips that, aside from the memorable flicker of his gray eyes, were her husband's most attractive physical feature, Amanda thought.
"Take a breath, work on a story," said Jack.
"A prisoner of your own devices," replied Amanda softly, and she stopped rubbing his arm.
As her husband drifted back to work, Amanda watched as Lou labored with her own story. Mother saw the potential for much happiness and some inevitable pain in her daughter. She could not live Lou's life for her, and Amanda knew she would have to watch her little girl fall at times. Still, Amanda would never hold out her hand, for Lou being Lou would certainly refuse it. But if her daughter's fingers sought out her mother's, she would be there. It was a situation burdened with pitfalls, yet it seemed the one destined for mother and daughter.
"How's the story coming, Lou?"
Head down, hand moving with the flourishing thrust of youthful penmanship, Lou said, "Fine." Amanda could easily sense her daughter's underlying message: that writing was a task not to be discussed with nonwriters. Amanda took it as good-naturedly as she did most things having to do with her volatile daughter. But even a mother sometimes needed a comforting pillow on which to lay her head, so Amanda reached out and tousled her son's blondish hair. Sons were not nearly so complex, and as much as Lou wore her out, Oz rejuvenated his mother.
"How're you doing, Oz?" asked Amanda.
The little boy answered by letting out a crowing sound that banged off all sides of the car's interior, startling even the inattentive Jack.
"Miss English said I'm the best rooster she's ever heard," said Oz, and crowed again, flapping his arms. Amanda laughed and even Jack turned and smiled at his son.
Lou smirked at her brother, but then reached over and tenderly patted Oz on the hand. "And you are too, Oz. A lot better than me when I was your age," said Lou.
Amanda smiled at Lou's remark and then said, "Jack, you're coming to Oz's school play, aren't you?"
Lou said, "Mom, you know he's working on a story. He doesn't have time to watch Oz playing a rooster."
"I'll try, Amanda. I really will this time," Jack said. However, Amanda knew that the level of doubt in his tone heralded another disappointment for Oz. For her.
Amanda turned back and stared out the windshield. Her thoughts showed through so clearly on her features.
Life married to Jack Cardinal: I'll try.
Oz's enthusiasm, however, was undiminished. "And next I'm going to be the Easter Bunny. You'll be there, won't you, Mom?"
Amanda looked at him, her smile wide and easing her eyes to pleasing angles.
"You know Mom wouldn't miss it," she said, giving his head another gentle rub.
But Mom did miss it. They all missed it.