Fifteen-year-old Austin Gray is sick to death of standing on the curb while the whole parade passes her by . . . quite literally. Tired of the constant teasing at the hands of a local malevolent and wishing she could just branch out and find a place in her small Texas town, Austin hatches a plan to become a “sweetheart” — a position of honor in Big Wells’ No-Jesus Christmas Parade.
So she plots. And she works. And she comes to possess a sleek black rooster she names Charles Dickens — and she works with him every day, hoping to train him so well that he wins her an award at the county fair. Much to her single mother’s chagrin, Austin joins the Future Farmers of America in school and finds herself with a new group of friends — including Sundi Knutt, the reigning parade sweetheart. And with the help of her new buddies and a little magic from Charles Dickens, Austin just might transform her life after all.
Jill S. Alexander’s The Sweetheart Of Prosper County is a glimpse of life for one teenage girl struggling with the grief she feels over losing her father years before and her desire to become something more than what she is: a quiet, almost-friendless loner who spends her time working at her mother’s hardware shop or hanging out with Maribel, her best friend. Her rooster, a gift from a local Creole man named Mr. Bourdreaux, adds a new dimension to her otherwise sheltered existence — and working toward entering Charles Dickens in the county fair gives her a goal.
While I liked Austin and wanted her journey toward happiness and self-esteem to go well, I can’t say that I particularly connected with her — or any of Alexander’s characters. Austin’s rationale for joining the FFA, raising her rooster and striving toward becoming sweetheart is all about finding acceptance, but I didn’t feel like she really wanted to change . . . that she was actively striving to become a stronger person. Somehow, the plot felt thin — and it didn’t take long for me to become frustrated with Austin, who consistently did what her grieving mother asked her not to do — and I felt sad for her mother Jeannie, too. But not sad enough that I cared for them beyond merely reading about their lives in a book.
The novel is fast-paced and a very quick read; I finished it in just a few hours, and I’m happy to have read it. Fans of Southern fiction and small-town settings will find Big Wells, Texas charming and quaint, and the setting helped keep my interest. Those love coming-of-age stories with a touch of romance will find something to enjoy here, too.
I should note that my views on the story have been shaped by reading so many other excellent coming-of-age young adult novels recently, and it’s too bad for The Sweetheart Of Prosper County that I read Robin Brande’s Fat Cat right after it — and just before writing this review. Because if you’re looking for a transformative, powerful and unbelievably entertaining read, Fat Cat takes the cake. This Sweetheart can only stand in the shadows.
3 out of 5!