Seattle Blues by Michael Wenberg

seattle-bluesSeattle Blues

It is the summer of 1970, and thirteen-year-old Maya is being forced onto a Greyhound bus by her mother.  The destination of the bus is Seattle, and the grandmother she has never known.  Maya is being sent away for the whole summer, and on the ride up the coast she’s already plotting ways to escape – it’s really only a question of whether she will run away or just annoy her grandmother until she is sent home.  At first, Seattle and grandma live up to every one of her dim expectations.  It’s always rainy and she has to go to church on Sundays.  But every once in a while Maya’s grandmother does something completely unexpected, and there are some mysteries about the older woman – why doesn’t she speak to her only daughter, and what happened in 1938?

There is a lot inside this fairly short volume, and it jumps from anti-Vietnam protests to family drama to learning about autism to civil rights history.  And sometimes it does feel like a lot has been shoved in – some of these topics should either have been explored in greater depth or cut from the book, instead of having them brought up in passing.  A few of the books’ plot points shine through the mess of issues – the importance of family and family history, and a deep love of music.  It is not a surprise to learn that the author is the CEO of the Walla Walla Symphony.  He is clearly as passionate about music as Maya becomes.

Maya and her grandmother are well-drawn, engaging characters.  Maya swings realistically from tetchy teen to sweet, curious kid as she opens up to her Grandmother.  And Grandma Ruby shines especially bright, particularly when pieces of her past surface.  She is very capable of surprising both her recalcitrant granddaughter and the reader.  However, the book’s secondary characters are not particularly fleshed out.  Tommy, Maya’s autistic neighbor, is around just long enough to find Maya’s grandfather’s trombone and convince her to play – after he has served his purpose he all but disappears from the narrative.

This novel could be a good match for tweens looking for more recent historical fiction, especially readers who don’t mind a “quiet” book.  The author’s note, which guides readers to further information on several of the book’s major themes, will be especially useful for kids who choose this book for historical fiction projects.  The story also involves Maya coming to terms with her father being Missing in Action and assumed dead during the Vietnam War, a subject that is topical for many children from armed forces families.

As a side note for those like me who enjoy a great library description, I’ll end with one of my favorite passages from the novel.  Maya and her grandmother spend a few mornings a week at the Seattle Public Library, which Maya describes like so:

“Whatever the reason, the smell of well-aged books, combined with the faint, almost imperceptible hum that I had decided long ago must come from all those eyeballs flitting back and forth across all those pages, had come to remind me of a friendly beehive.” (page 114)

Seattle Blues on the web.

Michael Wenberg on the web.

Review copy provided by the author.