In Elizabeth Berg’s 1997 novel Joy School, we meet (or are reintroduced) to Katie, a thirteen-year-old Texas transplant battling her grief at the loss of her mother and the complexities of growing up under her dictatorial father. Unbeknownst to me, Joy School is actually a follow-up to Berg’s Durable Goods — but I read the book as a stand-alone and enjoyed it without completely knowing the back story. It definitely comes across.
Katie is living in Missouri with her dad, housekeeper Ginger and her dog. Her older sister Diane has run off to Mexico (not sure where that plotline came from, precisely) with a boyfriend and not kept in much contact with Katie. She seems isolated, utterly alone — detached from the entire world around her. Waiting patiently for a letter day in and day out from friend Cherylanne, Katie begins to look to her few friends as mother figures, carefully following their advice on kissing, dressing and general behavior. Katie seems lost.
And then she meets Jimmy, a 23-year-old man who works at a nearby gas station, reads literature and enjoys playing checkers with Katie. After she falls and crashes through the ice while skating at a neighboring pond, Jim offers her his jacket, helps her warm up — and changes Katie’s life forever. She’s instantly smitten, hopes against hope that Jim could someday return her affections and . . . of course, he can’t. It’s all innocence and friendship. Isn’t it?