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"Rodin's Debutante" by Ward Just

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“Rodin’s Debutante” comprises the story of Lee Goodell, native of a small town near Chicago; he attends a private prep school, overhears things in his home that would get him into deep trouble, and becomes a sculptor.

This bald exposition does nothing to tell how engaging Lee or the other characters are, or how deep and cutting the issues on display. Ward Just, former National Book Award finalist with 1997’s “Echo House,” displays immense skill as he unfolds this drama. And this high skill, in competition with Just’s deep compassion – well, they finish in a dead heat at novel’s end.

Lee’s idyllic childhood features the best of both worlds: a close-knit, secure town, with deep porches and leafy streets, and, a bonus for any growing boy, a wild and possibly threatening area at the base of a high escarpment, known as “under the hill.” Lee and his friends must cross this escarpment to explore the wastes there: unkempt scrub and trees, secret trails, and fire pits set up among the rail spurs by tramps and hoboes. (Lee lives his childhood in the years just before and during World War II.) As Lee approaches his high school years, two separate attacks occur, which completely explode this Eden. His parents decide to move to an affluent suburb, closer to Chicago.

And this escarpment divides the rest of the book. Lee, it turns out, is a talented sculptor, whose successful debut show gets him off and running. But the first carving, done during his years as the U. of Chicago, reflects Lee’s own pain and injury from an attack he suffers on his street. Lee also serves as the thematic bridge that connects the two sides of this divide: he knows the hoboes who live "under the hill," works in a dangerous section of Chicago, and his early artwork is a series of versions of this bifurcation. This thematic escarpment also cleaves the life of a young girl, who not only loses her own idyllic childhood in a horrific attack at high school, but all memory of the event. We feel for Lee, and understand his struggle in the scene where this woman visits with him a few years later. To his credit, and to Mr. Just’s, he comes through with the support and frankness his character requires.

It’s been a while since I encountered characters so engaging and sympathetic. The only recent piece I can compare, in this vein, is “The Widower’s Tale,” by another great talent, Julia Glass. This is no Pollyanna piece, however. The big city’s dark side is open and displayed for all to see, and so is the small towns. Read it for Mr. Just’s deft capture of an era, for his so-real characters, for his prose, and his exact emotional feel for his characters.
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