In the 1950s, while the United States was still reeling from the loss of innocence due to the particularly gruesome World War II, a young boy in Virginia was also dealing with his own entrance into adulthood. This is the setting for Ruth White's young adult novel, Belle Prater's Boy. The adventures of crossed-eye, impish Woodrow Prater and his cousin, Gypsy, are sparked by the disappearance of Woodrow's mother, Belle. She seems to have vanished into thin air one early morning, leaving Woodrow to his drunken father. Woodrow's grandparents take him in, where he lives with his aunt and cousin. Together, the children uncover family secrets that push them out of blissful childhood ignorance.
The novel is not only heart-warming in its incredibly human story, it also manages to tell its story without judgement or condescension. The children's discoveries, the adults' mistakes, and the resulting trauma all unfold with a sad yet beautiful sense of humility. In this novel, people are just people. They are imperfect. They are, at times, difficult to accept. Yet, they are who they are. Woodrow, is an example of that. He is constantly teased for his awkward physicality and, especially, for his eyes, but Woodrow deals with it through his witty remarks and open mind. We see that beneath the wisdom beyond his years is a child who is dealing with his mother's abandonment. Or, perhaps, beneath the child is someone very wise, who is more than willing to forgive the world and love fully. Maybe he's all of these things together, all at once. Either way, Woodrow Prater is a character you will never forget once you've met him.
For my younger self, Woodrow has resonated to this day as an example of the best of humanity. His kindness was touching to witness as I turned the pages, eager to see what lay ahead for the two cousins. Throughout their trials and tribulations, what was most important, to me, is the fact that they were there for each other. Such friendship was difficult for me, as a child, to imagine for myself. I did not have many friends in those days, nor did I feel compelled to make friends, always unsure whether or not I would ever be able to find a kindred soul. I felt awkward and, as a young Vietnamese immigrant, found it difficult to communicate adequately. For these reasons, the story of their friendship touched me deeply. Woodrow Prater is an example that if you keep your heart and your mind open, you will eventually find true friendship and happiness.