Children’s Fiction of 2007: Way Down Deep by Ruth White

Way Down Deep is a town in West Virginia: an odd sort of town with several real live characters, including an old lady who throws rocks at kids, a goat named Jethro, and a granny lady with a talking owl. Ruby June, the protagonist of the novel, is a red-headed foundling who appeared in 1944 on the steps of the courthouse. She’s an atypical foundling in that she was approximately three years old when found, but the rest of her childhood pretty much follows the “orphan adopted by a spinster lady with lots of love to give” pattern. The people of Way Down Deep are generally kind, loving and forgiving, a fact which turns out to be key to ending of the story.

In other words the whole book has a sort of fairy tale feel to it (think magical realism for kids), so I wasn’t too surprised when the mystery of Ruby June’s birth, family background, and appearance in Way Down Deep turns out to have a solution that’s part realistic and somewhat surreal, too. And the mixture is never really explained even after the basic facts are ascertained.

I almost felt as if the author had this collection of characters in her mind that she wanted to put into a book, and they all escaped into this one:
Bonnie Clare, Connie Lynn, and Sunny Gaye are identical triplets who spend their spare evenings doing street evangelism, preaching the gospel and a temperance message to passers-by.
Robber Bob is a stranger who comes to Way Down Deep and tries to hold up the bank, with hilarious results.
Robber Bob Reeder has five children: Peter Reeder, Cedar Reeder, twins Skeeter and Jeeter Reeder, and the baby of the family, little Rita Reeder.
A.H. Crawford is an author of independent means with ”two front names” that he prefers not to use. Read the book and you’ll understand why. Mr. Crawford is writing a book about the history of Way Down Deep, but since he spends most of his days asleep in bed, the book isn’t coming along too well.
Miss Worly is the town librarian who delights “in peppering her sentences with fancy words.” The kids in town call her Miss Wordy.
Sheriff Reynolds was an officer whose “heart was way too soft and his mind too fuzzy for sheriffing.”
And Miss Arbutus Ward, Ruby’s foster mother, is the last descendant of the founding father of Way Down Deep, Archibald Ward. She’s also the owner and sole proprietor of The Roost, a boardinghouse for even more odd and quirky characters.

In fact, there’s a list at the beginning of the book of all the characters just so you can keep track of them. It’s a sort of a comic strip in prose, Little Orphan Annie meets Heidi. The book definitely began to remind me more of Heidi and less of Anne of Green Gables in the second half when Ruby June meets her cranky old grandmother who lives at the top of a mountain in a house all by herself and runs off anyone who tries to get close. Ruby June tames Grandma just as Heidi tamed the Alm Uncle, and they all live happily ever after in typical fairy tale fashion.

Don’t worry. I’ve given you some of the plot and introduced you to some of the characters, but there are plenty more eccentric Appalachian oddballs and several more story threads to keep you enjoying this rather pleasant tale. I doubt it will keep anyone awake at night pondering the deeper mysteries of life, but it’s good clean fun.

Way Down Deep is nominated for the Cybil Award for Middle Grade Fiction.

A 1995 interview with author Ruth White.

Publisher’s Weekly 2007 interview with Ms. White.

Other blog reviews of Way Down Deep:

Jules at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast: “White pulls it all together with the cohesive thread that is, at its core, a tender narrative about the relationship between a caretaker and her child — and what it truly means to be a family.”

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