By the Book
Windchill Summerby Norris Church Mailer
Random House, 391 pp., $24.95
Set in 1969 Sweet Valley, Arkansas, Windchill Summer tells the story of Cheryl Ann "Cherry" Marshall, the six-foot-tall albino first-person narrator, her best friend, Babilonia "Baby" Moreno, who, despite being a Filipino transplant, is in all other respects completely Southern, and their group of friends. What is outstanding here is that other than depicting the Southern penchant for nicknaming everyone, Mailer, Norman Mailer's wife, manages beautifully to transcend the standard Southern coming-of-age stereotypes. No hot languid nights full of heaving sweaty bodies with withering ladies fumbling lusciously toward sexuality while sipping mint juleps. Instead, Cherry and Baby are shown as insiders who feel like outsiders -- Cherry because of her appearance, Baby because of her heritage. Mailer chronicles their and their loose group of friends' search for identity amidst the landscape of the Small Town and the emotional fallout the Vietnam War ravaged on an entire generation.
This mixed salad of characters humorously masks the deeper meat of the book: leaving home, the falling away of one belief system and the construction of another, and false starts in love. The book also takes a strong anti-Vietnam stance, not by bashing the reader over the head with it, but by depicting the horrors of war experienced by Sweet Valley's young men. Mailer tells this element of the book so convincingly that it must be an issue near to her heart. (And with a name like Norris Church, little doubt can be cast over whether the author is from the South.)
Mailer's ability to shift between characters is brilliant; it gives the book depth and allows the plot to circle back on itself by story's end. The novel turns out to be a nifty mystery, and while Cherry's voice is Southern, it's not because Mailer forces the issue. This authenticity, and the mixture of some unique characters, give Windchill Summer a true resonance, one that lingers as richly as the proverbial summer breeze.