The Heebie-Jeebie Girl by Susan Petrone

Cover of THe Heebie-Jeebie GirlYoungstown, Ohio, 1977. Between the closing of the city’s largest steel mill and the worst blizzard in more than 40 years, the table is set for remarkable change. Unemployed steel worker Bobby Wayland is trying hard to help his family and still pay for his wedding, but the only solution he can think of involves breaking the law. On the other side of town, a little girl named Hope is keeping a big secret, one she won’t even share with her Great Uncle Joe―she can make things move without touching them. Watching over both of them is the city herself, and she has something to say and something to do about all of this.

The Heebie-Jeebie Girl is the story of an era ending and the uncertainty that awakens. It’s the story of what happens when the unconscionable meets the improbable. It’s the story of dreams deferred, dreams devoured, and dreams dawning. It is likely to be the most distinctive novel you read this year, but it will startle you with its familiarity. Author Susan Petrone has created an unforgettable tale of family, redemption, and magic.

I was originally attracted to The Heebie-Jeebie Girl by Susan Petrone because of the time period, 1970’s of my youth, and the location, Youngstown-a place very different than my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy from NetGalley and started reading it almost immediately.

I waited to post a review until closer to publication, which happens to be today (for the ebook at least).

I have somewhat mixed feelings, I really enjoyed the novel because of the characters. They seemed real and multi-dimensional and they brought something of Youngstown with them. The story draws you in and makes you like the characters, root for them (even the “bad guy”).  And the magical realism related to the young girl adds an element of suspense and intrigue.

I really didn’t care for the voice of the city itself, however, who is interjected into to the story. I am not sure what that voice brings to the story other than a voice outside the story and an attempt at humor. The city is a character in the story without having to have a specific voice, in my opinion.

But this flaw is not a big enough drag to ruin an otherwise well done story of family, community, tragedy and a little magic.

Some reviews disagree, as Larry Smith in his review at The New York Journal of Books has this to say

Most remarkable is her use of her hometown Youngstown as a lively, ironic, yet blunt critic-observer.

But I agree with is conclusion (which I think overcomes any weakness of the voice of the city)

And so, it’s a story about a working-class city, one among a great many, yet what compels one to keep reading is the rich characterizations of Hope, and Joe, and, surprise, even Bobby who knocks Grandma down the stairs while posing as the water man. Remarkably we move from despising him to caring about his fate.

This may be the real gift of this book and its real magic, Susan Petrone’s moving us from indifference to understanding and caring for others and our world, and that’s a very real transformation.

If you are looking for a compelling read while you are doing your part by staying home, you could do worse than The Heebie-Jeebie Girl.  Heck, the Mahoning Valley is a pretty relevant part of the country right now and this is a painless way to get a sense of its people, history and culture.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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