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Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe

Review

Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe

When Ariana “Cricket” Overland learns that her Aunt Belinda is sending her to live with her Great-Aunt Genevieve (nicknamed GAG), it is the final straw. Cricket is already mourning for her father, still missing her grandmother and unsure where her mother is at all. Though living with Aunt Belinda and her two rowdy cousins is far from ideal, being sent to live with GAG feels like a betrayal. So, when Cricket is forgotten at the grocery store on the day of the February Firehouse Jubilee Fish Fry, she decides not to go back to Belinda’s and instead takes some “Woods Time” and waits for her mother to return on the day her own mother’s headstone is erected. Cricket is the resourceful narrator of Jo Watson Hackl’s poignant debut novel, SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE OF MAYBE. 

“Woods Time” means spending some time in nature, perhaps alone, in order to sort things out emotionally. And the woods that Cricket learned to love from her Daddy were those surrounding the ghost town of Electric City, Mississippi. Cricket sets off for the treehouse her father built in what was once Electric City, with only a cricket named Charlene and pockets full of supplies, to wait for her mother’s return. She is confident that her mother would never miss the unveiling of the headstone she designed and she is hopeful that once reunited with her, her mother won’t abandon her again. While she waits, she attempts to solve the great mystery of her mother’s life: The Bird Room.

"Cricket is a resourceful and spirited girl....SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE OF MAYBE has elements of adventure, yet this coming of age story is bigger than Cricket’s Woods Time....A lovely and affecting read."

When Cricket’s Mama was a young girl, before her mental illness was diagnosed, she stumbled across an artist painting a secret room. An artist herself, she was entranced by the room, which was covered by a nature mural full of trees and plants and birds. The birds, in fact, seemed alive to her. No one ever believed her about the room or the life she saw in it --- no one except Cricket. Now Cricket begins to follow a set of clues to find the room and prove her mother wasn’t crazy. Yet as she spends time alone in the woods, battling raccoons, foraging for food, finding ways to stay warm and finding beauty, Cricket reflects on her mother’s life and behavior. After an encounter with a copperhead snake, Cricket makes the acquaintance of Miss V., who helps her come closer to finding the Bird Room and who gives her a new perspective on her mother, acceptance and the meaning of family.

Hackl has founded her story on some realities: Electric, Mississippi, and loosely on the art and biography of artist Walter Anderson. Her compassion for Cricket and for her Mama, unable to mother her, as well as her love for the nature of the American south help create a poignant novel. The timeline can be a bit confusing as it is the exact way the search for the Bird Room plays out, but readers can easily overlook those smaller details in favor of the big picture Hackl and emotional heft Hackl offers.

Cricket is a resourceful and spirited girl who has the best qualities of each of her parents but is challenged by circumstances to find a safe and happy place for herself without them. SMACK DAB IN THE MIDDLE OF MAYBE has elements of adventure, yet this coming of age story is bigger than Cricket’s Woods Time and bigger than her search for the Bird Room. It is the story of a girl grappling with loss and coming to terms with sorrows of the world yet still open to possibility and beauty. A lovely and affecting read.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on July 24, 2018

Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe
by Jo Watson Hackl