It's difficult sometimes to draw a line between books in the Speculative Fiction genre and novels that fall under the umbrella of General Fiction. When there are dragons, magic and sorcery, stories are a little bit easier to put into a certain camp than when there's just a hint of the supernatural in otherwise mundane settings and struggles. But when that little bit of something beyond the everyday is added to a lyrical, evocative writing style, the novel itself becomes a thing of wonder worth reading for SpecFic fans as well as those who normally read less fantastical tales.
The Wonder of All Things by Jason Mott is one such novel. It's set in a small Midwestern town without much concern for the rest of the world outside of the valley, where people live out their entire lives from birth to death and, if they do make it out into the rest of the world and make a name for themselves, become legends to their friends and neighbors. It's the sort of small town where things like fiery airplane crashes and miracle healings don't happen, ever. That is, until the day when a stunt plane lands in a fiery ball on a grain silo and Ava Campbell, daughter of Sheriff Macon Campbell, magically heals her best friend Wash of injuries sustained in the accident.
Suddenly the small town of Stone Temple is awash in reporters, churches, doctors, and people seeking "The Miracle Child" to help their own loved ones. There are people trying to define her, debunk her, convert her, and she's only thirteen years old. Meanwhile Macon struggles to fulfill his obligations as sheriff, protect his family from the sudden avalanche of attention, and struggles with the idea that maybe, just maybe, this could be an opportunity. If he could use the press just enough to give his family a better life, would it be so bad? Would it really be exploiting his daughter if her future, her best interests are at stake? And what about Ava? How does she feel about everything, and how much can she tell the world about how she performs the miracle that her healing appears to be?
This novel is a family saga as much as it is the story of a girl with a mystical gift. Ava is lost, uncertain, and Macon is equally at a loss as to how to handle the sudden change that has come over their town and their loved ones, even their neighbors and friends as Ava's powers bring out both the best and the worst in people. As it becomes apparent that every healing costs Ava her own health, the moral dilemma becomes clearer: does she have an obligation to help others to the detriment of her own well-being, simply because she has the ability to do so? Do others have the right to ask her to sacrifice herself for them just because she can?
Author Jason Mott's writing style immersed me completely from the first couple of pages. His depiction of the small town and its surroundings, his descriptions of the people in terms of their pasts and desires instead of just their physical traits, had me hooked right away, and these small shreds that hinted at the complexity of the character as a whole made the moral dilemma of Ava's powers even more understandable. The choices Ava makes in who to help and how, as well as her willingness to be a test subject, speak to her guilt about her mother's death; Wash's uncertainty and caring nature are much more steadfast than Macon's, his youth attributing to his unwavering devotion to Ava because he has fewer obligations to pull him in different directions. Macon has possibly the most complicated series of decisions to make about the well-being of the people around him, from his wife and their unborn baby to Ava to the people of Stone Temple and the people with whom he makes deals in order to try and keep the situation under control. All of the characters and their battles are unique, all of them are beautifully written, and all of them had me agonizing over what decision I would make in their situation. I won't lie, I didn't have much more luck at decisiveness than the characters themselves displayed.
Most stories I read seem to detail the time leading up to a critical event, the event itself, and then the results and ripples that are created by it. The Wonder of All Things, however, doesn't do that. Rather, it brings the reader into the story just as Ava heals the badly hurt Wash and goes from there into the resulting insanity, then stops when Ava reaches a certain point in the aftermath. (I'm not going to spoil what point that is!) We don't find out what happens to the others, or where their individual stories go from there. It may sound counterintuitive, but I don't feel that this made the story cut off too sharply; it left off at a stopping point, even if it might not be the one that readers were expecting. But it ties up the ends that are important to Ava, and that was what mattered in the end.
If you enjoy Ivan Doig's depiction of small-town life, or liked The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, pick up a copy of Jason Mott's new novel The Wonder of All Things. It will be released on September 30th and is available to pre-order now at your favorite local, independent bookstore.