‘Even sunflowers cast shadows’, an elderly character cryptically says midway in this bittersweet tale of innocence lost. And sure enough, the darkness lurking behind the seemingly perfect lives of her neighbors, and her own family members, is what feisty little tomboy Emma Starkey must confront, and come to terms with. Set the 1920s in a small town in Kansas , 'Sunflowers..' captures life in that bygone era, the small pleasures and sorrows of its colorful characters, and the many heartbreaks that pave the road to that mysterious place called Growing Up.
For six year old Emma, life gravitates between running wild with her siblings, and trying to stay on the right side of her stern father , harried mother and a grandmother swiftly succumbing to dementia. She tries her best to be pious, obedient and charitable, but is invariably the one to giggle at a deathbed, think of dog poo in church or ruin her mother’s best curtains with an impulsive act of goodwill. “ Do you suppose “, she fearfully asks a friend, “ if I hang onto my soul real tight, I can keep God from yanking it up to heaven and passing judgment on me after I die?”
When the intriguing and boisterous Drummond family moves in next door, Emma is delighted to find both a best friend and the exquisite pain of her first crush. But all is not what it seems with the Drummonds – secrets lurk behind their picture perfect lives and when Mr. Drummond abruptly abandons his family for another woman, their lives begin to unravel. Over the next four years, the lives of the Starkeys and the Drummonds grow intricately bound by friendship, rivalry and the burden of shared secrets, before a tragic death changes their lives forever.
Author Armstrong gifts his narrator with a rich and wonderful voice – she is precocious, knowing, angry and heartbreakingly naïve all at once, and reminded me of Scout Finch, the remarkable narrator of that American classic, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. We get to view Emma's world through her keen and curious eyes, and watch her negotiate love, lust sorrow and heartbreak. The book is filled complex and flawed characters-even scheming little children! - yet they are written with such empathy that I found it hard to dislike them.
Nor does the book skirt around sensitive issues; little Emma encounters sexual predators, racism and death, and takes her first steps toward sexual awareness. More significantly, she finds out that family can be fickle , cruel and unfaithful . For Emma’s is a world teeming with unreliable adults – a taciturn and emotionally remote father, predatory neighbours, perverted postmen, racist townsmen, adulterers. The few grown ups she is drawn to – her aunt, a youthful class teacher – invariably abandon her. Closer home, even as the Drummond’s teenaged daughter threatens to become the town scandal, Emma’s own sister Eileen blossoms into a manipulative siren and rival for the affections of dashing Rach Drummond.
‘Sunflowers..’ chronicles Emma’s painful coming of age with grace, humour and lots of heart, and is the kind of book that stays with you long after you’ve turned the last page. I also liked the arresting black and white image on the cover, that really captures the essence of its little heroine.