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Turning In Circles By Michelle Buckman: A Beautifully Written Coming Of Age Novel For Teens

I have just had the pleasure to interview Michelle Buckman, author of Turning in Circles, a suspenseful coming of age story rich with the life of a small coastal town in South Carolina. This extraordinary teen novel somewhat redeemed my negative view of Southern fiction. It looks at life through the lens of love. Darkness is exposed but it cannot overcome the Light.

Savannah and Charleston are teen sisters born within a year of each other. They feel like twins, but they are very different in character. The girls live on a farm with loving parents. There is a lack of closeness between parents and children at the time the story begins which has much bearing on the ensuing tragic events. The hardworking father cannot find reliable help and has to spend too much time in the fields. The artist mother’s attention is wrapped up in an intense phase in her work. These things are described matter-of-factly without an accusing finger pointed.

While the older sister Savannah is responsible and content with her life, Charleston, the younger sister, is beautiful, spirited and hungry for excitement. There are positive sides to Charleston’s character such as her love for her sister, for Hickory, a developmentally delayed black man, and for Gracie, a little neighbor girl. However, Charleston's hunger for thrills is so overpowering that she follows the lure of bad boy Dillon into a quickly escalating craze of destruction, theft and eventually sex (there is a single short glimpse of naked bodies described). Nothing short of tragedy will bring Charleston back to her senses.

Throughout the book, Savannah has to stand by helplessly while Charleston is headed for disaster. Savannah feels guilty about not preventing her sister’s bad choices. There is indeed some fault on Savannah’s part. She enables Charleston’s behavior by repeatedly covering up for her. However, the author makes it clear that Charleston is ultimately responsible for her own choices.

The family’s Catholic faith is not prominent in the story, but there are two turning points in the plot when the Faith becomes crucial. After some initial bad choices with a tragic result, wayward sister Charleston repents and goes to confession. However, she cannot accept the reality of Our Lord’s forgiveness. Her feelings of guilt lead her to reject her faith and give in to temptation once more. The books final tragic events lead Charleston to realize the error of her ways and recognize her father’s love and sacrifice for her. Faith blends in with the urgency of the action but stands out upon reflection. The lens of faith infuses the description of sinful behaviour with hope and healing. This lens is what makes this book beautiful in its realism and what makes it a great read for Catholic kids.

Turning in Circles describes a typical small-town community with corruption, racism and immorality hidden under a respectable surface. Part of the coming of age process for protagonist Savannah is the discovery of this hidden sludge of sin among the adults in her surroundings. Turning in Circles is not only about sin and evil, it is also about goodness, sacrificial love and beauty. As a result of the shocking events in the story, an overall cathartic process of healing begins in the community. The corrupt sheriff and his cronies are fired and the town rallies around its wounded.

There are some remarkable points worth mentioning in this novel. Initially, the mother distances herself from her daughter Savannah. Later we find out that she used her daughter’s suggestions to achieve a new high level in her work. The resulting paintings are accepted by an agent. After this success, the mother asks Savannah for more suggestions, forging a closer relationship with her daughter on a more mature level.

The girls’ father owns a beautiful and beloved horse coveted by the town’s corrupt sheriff. When the sheriff demands the horse as a bribe to keep Charleston out of jail, the father quietly sacrifices his most prized possession to save his daughter.

Savannah and Charleston have both been close friends with cheerful and wise neighbor boy Ellerbe. As Charleston turns to Dillon, Ellerbe’s romantic feelings toward Savannah emerge. Their romance is described sparingly and tenderly. It becomes Savannah’s support and comfort. There is a beautiful scene when Savannah falls asleep in the barn in Ellerbe’s arms while the boy is saying his evening prayers into her hair.

Michelle Buckman’s writing brims with beautiful imagery. She describes Savannah without Charleston as “a single flip flop stranded on the beach.” Ellerbe’s first kiss “…melted us together like a wax seal on a life-altering document.” The vivid character descriptions are reminiscent of Willa Cather and Maeve Binchy. This is the kind of quality writing our teens need to be exposed to.

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