The only thing wrong with nine-year-old Margie Carson's life in the small town of Nutbrush, Mo. is that her trucker father isn't home to spend enough time with their family.
That is, until Mrs. Carson decides that 4-year-old Ethel needs to stay in their "gray-shingled one-story house [which] fit only Daddy and Momma and Alberta and me--there was no place in it for Ethel." (p. 29).
Margie's reasoning goes like this:
"If Ethel were clean and nice and regular white, or clean and nice and regular Black--or just plain nice--folks would say, 'Ain't it sweet about Miz Carson keeping Miz Mary's girl.' They sure wouldn't say that the way she is now!" (p.27)
While Margie puzzles over how her mother and Ethel's mother know one another, 13-year-old Alberta gives hints that Margie just can't quite figure out. But that's only part of Margie's problem. From the moment that her mother drops her off--allegedly just for the weekend--Ethel is a handful:
"They came into the kitchen and right away Ethel started jumping around. Same ole dirty face. Same dirty hands. Dirty red shirt and too big sandals that flopped when she walked. She climbed unto a kitchen chair, jerking at the tablecloth, and one of Momma's best plates shattered on the floor." (p. 29)
Margie's anger knows no bounds as she faces the humiliation of Ethel wetting the bed Margie is forced to share with her, Ethel calling Mrs. Carson "my Momma," and her own friends' scorn.
But when Ethel tells Margie that her "toys" are her mother's empty beer bottles and bottle caps, Margie begins to understand the life that Ethel has lived. Although a wise neighbor advises Margie that she's not the baby anymore, it takes several major growing-up moments before Margie makes room in her heart for Ethel.
"I wondered what it would be like in my life to have a real younger sister. Course, she wouldn't be anything like Ethel. A regular sister would be all Black and not trashy. Her parents would be Momma and Daddy. Not Miz Mary and somebody. Who in the world was Ethel's father after all? The way they went around whispering, they had to know! It finally hit me that everyone knew how he was but me! I had a right to know, too. After all, his kid was in my bed." (p. 110-111)I won't spoil the ending but suffice it to say, readers will empathize with Margie's struggles and appreciate the decision she makes in the end.
First published in 1980 by Dial, Just an Overnight Guest was made into a television movie in 1983; here is a clip from that production:
Although the book is recommended for ages 9-12, because of the nature of the story I personally would suggest a slightly older reader. (Caveat: I'm a very conservative reader and Eleanora told me that 8-year-olds have read this book and liked it!) Like the Boy in the Striped Pajamas that also features a young protagonist, I think the content of the book requires a more mature reader. The characterization, character's voices, and historical accuracy are spot on and lend themselves to a good read-aloud in an upper elementary or middle school classroom.
The sequel to Just an Overnight Guest is Front Porch Stories at the One-Room School which was original published by Bantam/Skylark Books in 1992.
To enter to win my gently-used autographed copy of Just an Overnight Guest, please leave me a comment (and your email address if I don't have it) by 8 AM January 1. Who will be my first giveaway winner in 2015?