In my monthly book club group we open the discussion with just a word and a number--how much we enjoyed the book on a scale of 1-10 and one word that best describes it for us.
Wingshooters would be a 10 and my word would be powerful. The better the book the harder it is to choose just one word...sometimes we fudge and try to string two words together. In that case I would say hauntingly powerful.
Wingshooters is set in 1974 –the years of the Boston school bussing crisis, Watergate, the end of the Vietnam War and just after the Civil Rights Movement. These events seem distant from the small town in rural Wisconsin, but in fact they are a great influence in the events that take place. This story also reminds us that racism was not limited to just the south.
Often compared to To Kill a Mockingbird and Snow Falling on Cedars, Wingshooters explores the effects of change on this small isolated community when the Garretts, a black couple from Chicago arrive to work there. Their presence challenges and disrupts a set way of life. Betty Garrett is a nurse in the new medical clinic and her husband, Joe, works as a substitute teacher at the elementary school. The very thought of them having responsible positions deeply disturbs an influential core of people in the town, especially because Mr. Garrett has contact with their children. And then the very idea of “an N word nurse laying hands on our children” repulses them. The N word is used freely by these people so fearful of change. At times, it’s hard to believe this is a northern town in the 70’s.
These events are told from the perspective of Michelle LeBeau, now in her 40’s and living in Los Angeles, as she remembers them from the year she was nine years old. Her Japanese mother who she lived with for eight years in Japan disappears and her American father sets out to find her, thinking she is somewhere in the states. He leaves Michelle with his parents in Wisconsin temporarily, but as time passes it is obvious he is not returning for her and this realization breaks her heart. Her savior is grandfather, Charlie LeBeau.
Thus begins one of the most endearing aspects of the story—the love affair between Michelle and her grandfather Charlie, a former minor league baseball player, an expert hunter and one of the town’s most respected men. What makes his love for Michelle so amazing is there is no mistake that Charlie is a bigot in every sense of the word. He is “not shy about using racial epithets or blaming blacks, Jews or Democrats for all the country’s problems”. Yet he alone in the town is able to overlook the fact that she is half Japanese, as her appearance so aptly reveals.
Although the townspeople do not embrace Michelle, they tolerate her because of their respect for Charlie, but he cannot follow her to school where she endures abuse from the children on a daily basis, from insults such as “Nip Head, Your Daddy’s a Jap lover, Your Mama’s a Geisha whore.” to physical torments—shoving, pushing, black and blue bruises. What we today call bullying was ignored in this town where children repeated what they probably heard their bigoted parents say. Deserted by her parents and friendless at school, Michelle is a sad, lonely child who spends more time observing life around her than living it.
She finds comfort in her Springer Spaniel, Brett, romping through the woods or riding her bike on the many trails near her home. But her greatest enjoyment is with her grandfather, Charlie, who teaches her to hunt, fish, play baseball, and eventually how to defend herself. He calls her Mikey, perhaps to replace the son who never followed in his manly footsteps. Michelle however loves being his protégé. By the age of eight she could shoot a gun, milk a cow, scale fish, gut squirrels, drive the Pontiac and even operate the tractor. She is in awe of her grandfather who has taught her not only these things but an appreciation of nature. ”He was a man in a vital fundamental way that grown men simply aren’t today, at least not in the city.” Decades later as an adult, Michelle still marvels that “this strong handsome man whose company everyone desired seemed to want nobody’s company more than mine.”
Michelle is also attracted to the black family, the Garretts, who appear kind, graceful and dignified. As the town’s prejudicial meter now swings from her to the Garretts, she waits with pity and fear for the rejection they are going to face. There is no one more qualified than herself to warn them as they bravely go about their jobs. She knows they will never be accepted, but even she cannot foresee the tragic events that are set into motion when Mr. Garrett suspects child abuse of one of his students, Kevin. When Kevin ends up in the emergency room with a broken arm from a “clumsy fall”, Mrs. Garrett sees evidence of previous harm to the child and, merely doing her job, reports it to the authorities. This controversial accusation is against one of the town leaders, Earl, who happens to be Charlie’s best friend. Earl, a Vietnam vet, owns the local gun shop where the good ‘ole boy network often meets. They decide to take action to make conditions for the Garretts so uncomfortable that they will high tail it back to Chicago. This doesn’t happen and the consequences become ugly.
There is a sense of foreboding right from the start yet there are moments of tranquil beauty in the writing and the setting. On one of their nature walks, Charlie shows Michelle a secret place with a beautiful lake that he has been coming to as a child—a spiritual place that he has shared with no other person and where his reverence for God is more visible to Michelle than what she has seen of him at church or in his nightly prayers. In their hunting outings his steadfast rules often apply to life as well, such as “never hurt anything female,” and “you should always take care of what you kill”. The scene describing the Canada Geese is another beautiful passage and also relates thematically to Mikey’s situation.
This is a rich, complex story that book discussion groups will devour. There is much to explore both of our nation and the people in it. It shows them at their best and worst and how those qualities are often portrayed in the same person. It pits family members against each other and tests friendships and loyalty. At the climax, Charlie must make difficult choices and it is only years later that Michelle truly comes to understand the motivation of both her own actions one fateful night and her grandfather’s decisions.
Like the main character, author Nina Reboyr, who now lives in Los Angeles, was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and an American father and spent a few childhood years in Wisconsin. Although her book is fiction, it’s themes ring true to life as it explores sin, faith and redemption. Most remarkably, it is the story of an enduring love between a grandfather and granddaughter and how this relationship continues to influence her life on a daily basis. One note of caution. It’s powerful message may haunt you long after you put it down.