Lucky Strikes by Louis Bayard

lucky strikesFourteen-year-old Melia inherits a rough road of living when her mother dies of an undisclosed ailment and leaves fatherless Melia with two younger siblings to raise, and a decrepit gas station up to its eaves in debt.  Their mom, a free spirit in a tight-knit community, has left them as outcasts, their only trusted contact being the family lawyer.  The usual customers of the gas station are hard-boiled truckers, glad to see their little station after a stretch of twisty roads.

The Great Depression is on full swing, and ruthless Standard Oil franchisee Harley Blevins wants their gas station as another acquisition in his list of service centers in northern Virginia.  Officials of Virginia are also likely to make the kids wards of the state, depending on how much they do, or don’t know.  Then a hobo appears, tumbling out of a coal truck, and Melia has an idea.   And wall-eyed Hiram Watts, disheveled and needing a cigarette bad, has a new lease on life.

Brenda’s Oasis, as they come to call their gas station/general store, becomes just that on their stretch of mountain road.  Hiram has a sense of gab and business that brings in truckers and tourists aplenty, and all three kids find their places in the operation of a once-questionable enterprise.  Melia, who learned her mechanic’s acumen from her mom, earns the trust of many a motorist.  Earle, middle child and junk collector, hones his underage driving and customer service skills.  Janey, the youngest and wise beyond her years, has a flair for the bookkeeping that she learns from Hiram.

Good fortune only lasts so long, and the insatiable Mr. Blevins wants their store bad enough to play dirty.  But you’ll have to read on to figure out who really handles the competition.

Lucky Strikes is an endearing yarn of familial love, heartbreak, acceptance, and growth in the harsh realities of Depression-era Virginia.  You’ll cheer on Melia as she gets tough with the world and occasionally becomes tender from young love.

Melia is a heroine similar of mettle to Mary Call Luther from Where the Lilies Bloom, an early 1970s classic with much the same subject matter (orphaned hardscrabble family, tough teenage sister holding the family together).  I am quick to compare the two, as WTLB is a personal favorite.  As it is, Lucky Strikes stands on its own, and I would say it is a warmer, more personable book than the previous.  Read them both, if you like your YA characters gutsy and real.

(William Hicks, Information Services)