Another Elizabeth Berg novel, another enjoyable read! Told from the point of view of 12 year-old Ginny, the book is set in Clear Falls, Wisconsin in the summer of 1958. Ginny is close to her sister Sharla, who is a year older, and although they do bicker a lot, they spend a lot of time together creating fantasies, someties in their yard, at midnight, unbeknownst to their parents. Their mother Marion, sort of a drill sergeant, scheduled their lives to fill them with enrichment opportunities. For example, Monday night was “Vocabulary Night,” and everyone in the family had to come to the dinner table with a new word to share. Each of the other weekdays had something else for the girls to do to keep them out of trouble. Their father was an insurance man who was extremely predictable: out every morning with a kiss for Marion and pats on the head for the girls, he returned promptly every evening at 6:00, tooting the car horn three times to announce his arrival, and calling out, “I’m home” as he came in the back door. The girls did their best to have adventures that they kept from their parents, and it all seemed like a typical American family. Until the new neighbor moved in, and their lives were never the same.
I love Ginny. Berg did a great job bringing these children to life. Ginny is perceptive, her powers of observation are keen, and she is often wise beyond her years. And she’s funny! Arguing with her sister about a gift for their mother’s birthday, Ginny thought, “I did not want to give my mother a nightgown, I thought the idea lacked imagination. However, my offering last year had been licorice and a book of riddles, which I now saw differently.”
Ginny hated school. Thought it was an unhealthy thing for a growing child. She liked science, although she didn’t always understand it. She couldn’t bear to look at her teachers unless they had on something interesting. “I knew some kids loved their teachers, and I couldn’t begin to understand why, to me they were only tall cellmates.”
This domestic drama had me thinking deeply about relationships and the choices that we make. I reflected on my own family and my place in it. And I spent a great deal of time thinking about forgiveness.
There were so many cultural references that were reminiscent of my childhood: toys, celebrities, perfume, periodicals, TV shows, songs, fast food. All of these references sent me back to 1958 with a memory and a cozy feeling of being a 1950’s child in a world that allowed me to play in the neighborhood all day with all the other kids, and come home tired and hungry and safe when my father came home from work at 5:00. It amazes me how lyrics I haven’t thought about in 60 years came right back to me. It was a beautiful trip down memory lane to a simpler and happy time of my life. Here are some of those references: hula hoops, Nancy Drew, Dairy Queen, Perry Como, rice Krispie treats, flip-flops, “My Sin,” Betty & Veronica, Liz Taylor, The Mickey Mouse Club, A&W, The Rifleman, “Catch a Falling Star,” The Saturday Evening Post.
When Marion invited the new neighbor for dinner, the girls knew their mother was pulling out all the stops when they smelled what they knew was her company recipe for Bella Vista Chicken. While I couldn’t find any recipe by that name, mediterranean chicken recipes kept appearing, so I modified a couple using ingredients that I like and adding a sauce, because I thought the recipes seemed too dry to be palatable. This was delicious, and a keeper.
Bella Vista Chicken
1½ lb chicken breast (sliced and pounded to equal thickness)
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp ground black pepper
¼ C flour
1 T olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
10 oz canned or frozen artichoke hearts, drained (do not use the ones in oil)
6 oz sun-dried tomatoes (not the ones packed in oil)
3 T capers (drained)
½ C white wine
1 C chicken broth
Season chicken with salt and pepper. On a large plate, dredge chicken in flour. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet on medium-high heat. Add chicken and brown for about 4 minutes until golden. Flip the chicken and brown the other side for about 4 minutes on medium heat.
Remove the chicken to a plate.
Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to the pan and saute garlic for about a minute. Add artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, capers, white wine and chicken broth. Stir to combine and bring to a boil on medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until sauce reduces to about a cup. Add the chicken back to the pan, cover and cook to reheat, about 5-10 minutes until chicken is completely cooked through.