Penny From Heaven
by Jennifer L. Holm
Reviewed by Liz Burns, A Chair, a Fireplace and a Tea Cozy
Originally published at The Edge of the Forest, Vol 1, Issue 6, August 2006
Penny From Heaven appears, at first, to simply be an old-fashioned book. The cover reflects the 1950s setting, with Penny (almost 12) and her cousin Frankie leaning against a car, Penny daydreaming, while Frankie has a baseball and mitt. We're about to be transported to the past. (And isn't the past always a better time?) Penny and her widowed mother live with Penny's maternal grandparents. Penny's father's family lives close by, and she is also close to them.
On the surface, this is a book that is both an ode to old-fashioned summers and a love letter to Holm's grandmother. Frankie and Penny explore their neighborhood with a great deal of freedom, and have summer days during which they can do whatever they want to do: no camp, no lessons, no structure. Penny From Heaven is based on the childhood stories of Holm's grandmother, and Holm has taken that and made it into fiction, into story, with endnotes and photos explaining the "real" story.
Penny From Heaven is warm, funny, and real. Most of the book is about the summer, as Penny and Frankie make their own fun, whether it's hanging out with her father's relatives, listening to her favorite baseball team (the Brooklyn Dodgers), searching for lost treasure or trying to sneak into the forbidden public pool.
Penny is close to both sides of her family; yet those two sides barely speak to each other, divided by the loss of her father. Her mother's family is solid American, her father's is Catholic and Italian. Penny From Heaven is more than a summer book or a family love story, because Holm also shows that the 1950s were not a perfect time. One uncle lives in a car. Penny is forbidden to go to the public swimming pool because of the fear of catching polio. The most serious secret is that involving Penny's father and his death. Penny discovers that during World War II "enemy aliens" had to registered and had their lives seriously restricted, with regulations for curfews, travel, and what they could own. Some were even sent to Internment Camps; and she also learns that those enemy aliens included people who were born in Italy and lived their whole lives in the United States. People like her father.
Towards the end of the book, Penny From Heaven shifts from a story of long summer days to one of Penny finding courage and strength. There is an accident—one that threatens to further divide Penny's family. Instead, Penny discovers her own strength and the power of love and forgiveness. Holm has managed to take her own personal family history and make it universal—to take a time in the past, and make it accessible. She honors the past without glorifying it
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