Penny From Heaven by Jennifer L. Holm

Dumb Boy Shot by Own Grandmother‘. That got me laughing out loud, in the real LOL sense of the chat lingo. An eleven year old girl with a cousin who always gets himself and her in trouble grace the pages of this book I picked up during my ‘supposed’ naptime. My nap was replaced with 2 hours and 10 minutes of immersion in  Penny’s whirlwind life in the 50s in America in Penny From Heaven by Jennifer L. Holm.

I was parsing through El Paso’s community library’s children’s area and came across this book. After reading the inside jacket, I grabbed it for my daughter, along with another book, which I have yet to read. My own book stack comprised of parenting and educational books, which I read till my eyes felt like they were going to pop out of their sockets in rebellion. Suffice it to say, I felt like escaping the world of parental failure, and jumping into the carefree world of a child. Let’s just say I decided to see it from the child’s perspective.

See it I did. I laughed, cried, chuckled, and wince in horror through this book. It started calmly enough, and I had to read the first word twice to make sure I was not reading it wrong. Me-me was what Penny calls her maternal grandmother, who is well known for her cooking skills (not). The book didn’t really start with a big bang. No action. Just plain restrospection of an eleven year old girl  whose father had died when she was a baby.

The next chapter was still narrative. If I had been  rushed  through the reading, I would have put the book away. It took some concentration on my part amidst the back and forth conversation going on in the background in my living room to get past the fist page of the second chapter. I’m glad I exerted the effort because what came next was  tickling.

Penny lives with her single working mother and her maternal grandparents, who are interesting characters indeed. She calls them Me-me and Pop-Pop, which I find quite amusing. Then again, if you think about it, if we were to list what grandchildren call their grandparents, by mistake or or not, it’d make an interesting list. While her daily life around them are pretty normal (if you can think of a hard-hearing grandfather who loves to burp loudly and a terrible cook as a grandmother normal), she gets her dose of interesting childhood memories by spending time with the paternal side of her family, who happen to be Italians. A favorite uncle who lives in a car and wears only slippers, a cousin who drags her into exciting trouble, another uncle who owns the butcher shop and calls his wife ‘my little potato’, and yet another uncle married to a dancer who lives in the same house with her Italian-speaking grandmother whom she calls Nonny, make up Penny’s fatherless world.

Talk of how her father died seem to be shroud in mystery when the adults come up with different stories of how he died. As I went through the chapters, you could feel the building of this mystery and you could sense that something is going to happen to reveal the truth. Nonetheless, I was shocked at what took place. Every story has a set of problems, and one problem that occurred in this book is one I still cannot imagine happening to a child. However, the author has liberally sprinkled a tickling sense of humor in this book such as to elicit many chuckles and one outburst of ongoing laughter from me, to my children’s almost-disgust.

One such scene was when Penny and Frankie (her ‘criminal’ cousin) was trying to get away from one of the skirmishes Frankie manages to get them into. While furtively digging for their grandpa’s buried treasure in their uncle’s backyard under the cover of the night, Frankie begins to count his eggs before they hatch; the newspaper headline annoncing:  ‘Boy Detective Finds Hidden Treasure’ . However, their excitement was cut off when their Nonny, yelling, “I call polizia!” came out with an unexpected shotgun, which actually works, sending them running for their lives. Thus was born the new proposed headline,  ‘Dumb Boy Shot by Own Grandmother’, ending that particular chapter. I have to say it has been a while since I laughed that loud and long while reading fiction.

Penny is smart, sassy when she wants to be (like when she was trying to prevent the milkman from marrying her mother), and simply misses her father, even though she never really knew him as a person. This was expressed time and time again in the book, and is what the story revolves around. Uncle Dom, the uncle who lives in a car and wears only slippers, becomes her favorite father figure. It is this relationship that struck me as the most touching, especially when later events unfold. When Penny burst like an uncontrollable dam reservoir let loose, he was the one she went to. She even told him to marry her mother so he could  become her official father.You could tell how close these two were and what happened later reinforced their relationship as uncle and niece. I almost wished he was her father.

I truly enjoyed reading this book and being immersed in a story inspired by the author’s own Italian heritage. A two-time Newbery Honor winner, Jennifer Holm hooks her readers with stories woven from the rich tapestries of her family’s lives. For a while, it made me contemplate writing fiction comprised of characters I find in my own family. As I half mulled over it, I thought,

Hmm…it’d definitely make for an interesting read.

Then again, I think it would raise more problems than it’s worth. The traits are not all flattering. ‘Nuff said.

As in romance content, there were some references to kissing from a child’s point of view and as the story progressed, from a pre-teen’s point of view, which I felt was not too descriptive and visual. In all, I love the characters and craziness that seems to come only from an Italian family. The fact that the story was set in the 50s also attracted me. Sure enough you do learn from historical fiction. I never knew that Italian Americans were also under ‘watch’ as a result of World War II, and that suspected ‘spies’ were sent to internment camps to die. I thought they only did that to the Japanese. You do learn something new everyday. It’s interesting also how the same cycle of ‘suspicion’ seems to arise in every era. Now we’re in the ‘Islamophobia’ era. Go figure. Maybe someone should write a children’s fiction that portrays Muslims living in America. I bet people would be surprised to know that a Muslim father does the dishes too sometimes, or in our case, most of the time.

If you’re looking to escape into the world of an eleven year old during the 50s in America and experience the hustle and bustle only an Italian family can surround you with, look up this book in your local library and be prepared to cry and laugh throughout. Now, I need to go back to my stack of parenting books and brace myself for  ‘Dumb Parent Damages Own Children’.

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