Gigi Amateau’s new young adult novel A Certain Strain of Peculiar starts out compellingly enough. For Mary Harold, we know that life in Virginia has gotten all but unbearable. Pegged “the grossest girl” and forced into exile by her former best friend, the 13-year-old pleads with her mother to return them to Wren, Alabama to be with Mary Harold’s beloved grandmother, Ayma. When Bye refuses to let her go, she takes matters into her own hands.
Life is definitely different in Wren. Mary Harold sets about helping Ayma’s farm manager Bud with chores around the homestead, wrestling cattle and mending fences long broken. In building up her own strength physically, Mary Harold builds herself up emotionally — and all of the fear and anxiety she experienced in Virginia begin to ebb away.
In the process, Mary Harold meets Bud’s children Dixie and Delta, both “special” in their own way. Since their own mama left them for a shot at stardom, Dixie has “become” a horse full-time, and Delta acts out in often reprehensible ways. Mary Harold befriends Dixie and occasionally clobbers Delta, and the lessons she learns from both are significant — namely, the nature of true friendship.
So I enjoyed A Certain Strain of Peculiar — it was a quick read full of wonderful imagery. Told from Mary Harold’s point of view, it’s a very “internal” book — full of descriptions and her inner monologues, and not a lot of dialogue. That didn’t really bother me so much, but sometimes it felt a little slow. That’s where my ache for “compelling literature” started acting up.
Of every facet of the book, my favorite had to be watching Mary Harold morph from a completely frightened, insecure girl to a brave, strong and tanned young woman, someone secure in her own skin and confident enough to take on anything or anyone — from facing her own crippling panic attacks to standing up for weaker students bullied around by the unsavory Gil.
Mary Harold’s relationship with her mother was very strong and inspiring, and I loved that about it, too. What I missed was a little more back story on Bye, her mom — we know she was a hellraiser who got pregnant young and left town for good. But she doesn’t seem that way at all now. She’s deeply connected to nature, a theme that really is the cornerstone of the novel — the connection to the living things around us, animate and inanimate. Local rivers are a lifeblood for Ayma, Mary Harold and Bye, and the descriptions of nature were great.
There were some moments in the novel that really made my skin crawl — a few disturbing scenes involving Delta’s behavior. If I were young, they might have given me nightmares . . . the build-up to them was a little sudden and intense. They were important to the story, no doubt, but I felt a little uneasy reading after that. When something scary takes me by surprise, it’s hard for me to relax again.
Regardless, Amateau has a very clear and wonderful voice — and I recommend her coming-of-age novel. Teen readers might enjoy it even more than I did, but I liked getting to know the residents of Wren . . . and wish Mary Harold well!
3.5 out of 5!