It’s sublimely satisfying to finish a novel with a contented sigh. That’s exactly what I did after spending treasured time in fictional Billington, Texas the hill-country setting for “The Old Place,” a novel by Bobby Finger. This charming, poignant debut is certain to win hearts and garner fans who’ll be anxious for this gifted author’s next offering.
The essence of small town Americana comes to life with Finger’s homespun characters, many of whom you might meet on the streets of the community in which you live or in a town where you grew up.
Centerstage is Mary Alice Roth, a 63-year-old educator who’s just retired from Billington High, or perhaps been urged to turn in her grade book by the district. Mary Alice is all hard edges, outspoken and bossy, but a tireless worker and organizer of Billington’s annual picnic. Her feathers are ruffled because a younger teacher has been hired to take her place.
Josie is a sweet natured woman who can’t understand why Mary Alice seems hellbent on making her transition difficult, to the point that she drops into Josie’s classroom to make sure Josie’s performing up to speed. Additionally, she ropes Josie into helping with the picnic, assigning her to bring potato salad—a dreaded task. Oh, how Mary Alice tests Josie.
Though Mary Alice can try anyone’s patience, she has resumed a friendship with Ellie, who moved next door 18 years ago. Ellie is divorced and Mary widowed, after her husband drowned in a lake on the old place, a property that has been in the Roth family for years. The women grow fond of each other and pleased that their sons, both the same age, immediately become friends. When the boys die as high school seniors, almost at the same time, each woman’s grief is too much to bear—so much so that they can’t console one another and drift apart.
With Mary Alice’s retirement, she finds she has time and wants to fill the gap left in her life, a gap that teaching filled, so Mary Alice and Ellie restart their relationship. But it isn’t long before buried wrenches threaten to quash their frequent coffees. It turns out there’s more than one reason for Mary Alice’s bristly exterior, secrets abound that are gradually revealed and come to light when Mary Alice’s sister, who she’s been estranged from, returns to Billington with news that could blow Mary Alice’s cover and threaten her respect in the community.
“The Old Place,” while humorous at times, remains a book with serious overtones that illustrate how hard it is to be happy if we’re not happy with ourselves and how our secrets can keep us sick unless they’re shared.
This is a wise wonderful book that’s not to be missed.