Welcome to the TLC Book Tour for Wishin’ and Hopin’
It is October 1964. Lyndon Johnson is completing the late John F. Kennedy’s term in office and running for re-election against Senator Barry Goldwater. John, Paul, George, and Ringo are at the top of the charts, and Cassius Clay — who would later be even more widely known as Mohammed Ali — is the world heavyweight boxing champion. “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” starring Bette Davis and Joseph Cotton, is playing at the local movie theatre, and Dusty Springfield is one of the most popular female singers of the day.
Felix Funicello is the smallest of all the fifth graders in Sister Dymphna’s class at St. Aloysius Gonzaga Parochial School. His family runs a lunch counter in the New London, Connecticut bus station where three posters of distant cousin Annette Funicello are proudly displayed: One from her heyday as the most popular Mouseketeer and one from the classic “Shaggy Dog” film in which she co-starred with Fred MacMurray and Tommy Kirk. But the third depicts Annette in a white two-piece bathing suit with a transistor radio up to her ear, paying homage to her later work in “Beach Blanket Bingo” and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.” It hangs in a place of prominence right over the fryolator.
Felix’s mother is about to fly to California to compete on television in the Pillsbury Bake-Off. Her “Shepherd’s Pie Italiano” has made her a finalist in the “main meal” category and soon she will be on of 100 contestants sharing air time with actor Ronald Reagan. Felix, meanwhile, is set to appear on a local children’s program, The Ranger Andy Show, along with his fellow Junior Midshipmen.
Felix is in constant competition with Rosalie Twerski for the position of top student. Sister Dymphna ranks the student on the blackboard each week and seats them in accordance with their academic accomplishments. So Felix is seated in the front row of the classroom, while his friend Lonny Flood is generally seated in the last row. At 12 years of age, Lonny has already been held back twice. While Lonny may not be learning much in the classroom, he is certainly gaining a lot of knowledge outside of school, and imparting much of it to Felix, who doesn’t understand many of Lonny’s crude jokes and wisecracks.
Felix’s two older sisters, Simone and Frances, are in high school, having already endured a year in Sister Dymphna’s class, whose mood swings are legend. The story is told by Felix, today a “responsible citizen.” But at the outset, he declares that he his conscience have unfinished business, his telling of the story is “both my confession and my act of contrition.”
Wally Lamb is the author of two of my all-time favorite books: She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much is True. His latest work, Wishin’ and Hopin’ is quite a departure, but no less enjoyable or memorable.
Two words sum up the tale of little Felix Funicello and his fifth grade adventure: Hilarious and touching. It is a difficult book to review because if too much is revealed about the plot developments, not only will the surprises be ruined, but some of the utter joy of reading Lamb’s quirky story will be lost. And reading it is a very joyful experience. The characters are vivid and completely believable, each with a unique voice, and most of them eccentric and wacky.
Being just a couple of years younger than the fictional character of Felix, I can attest that Lamb’s depiction of the time period is not just spot-on, but a lovingly nostalgic trip back in time to the days when we watched Art Linkletter on our black and white televisions, rode in the backseat of our parents’ gigantic American cars (Felix’s father hopes his mother wins the bake-off so that they can purchase a brand new Buick Riviera, complete with hinged headlights), and marveled at such technological breakthroughs as the electric knife Mrs. Funicello acquires. Yes, we ate at lunch counters — Lodi boasted a popular one inside the local Woolworth’s store where we were allowed to enjoy lunch with our mother only during very special shopping trips and only if we were on our best behavior.
Wishing and hopingand thinking and praying. . .~ Dusty Springfield
And many of us remember the dreaded Christmas pageants in which we were required to participate. For Felix’s class, the 1964 annual pageant will be unique because it will include not only an original play authored by none other than class tattletale and would-be teacher’s pet, Rosalie, but it will feature the members of the fifth grade class in tabeau vivant, as suggested by their substitute teacher. At the outset, Sister Dymphna suffers a “nervous breakdown” which necessitates her prolonged absence while she recuperates. After a short stint under the tutelage of Sister Mary Agrippina, who has a disturbing habit of pinching students’ skin between her thumb and forefinger while twisting, thus leaving bruises on the children, , Madame Marguerite Frechette, a lay teacher, is brought in to finish out the fall term. Her dress (high heeled shoe revealing her painted toenails, fishnet stockings, tight skirts, and a red beret) is unconventional, as are her teaching methods. But the children adapt and grow fond of her, despite the fact that Felix sneeze every time he comes near her and her lily-of-the-valley perfume, because her classroom rules are more lax than the nuns’ and she revises the seating order. As preparations for the pageant get underway, there is competition for the role of the Virgin Mary which ultimately leads to laugh-out-loud mayhem.
Lamb also gently reminds readers of the turbulent social climate of the time, with passing references to President Johnson’s stance on the Viet Nam war and the views of Dr. Martin Luther King during a discussion about the fact that African-Americans no longer wish to be referred to as “colored” or “Negroes.” Lamb also includes two pivotal characters. Marion Pemberton, the only African-American student in the class, is pressed into portraying both one of the Wise Men, of course, as well as Saint Martin de Porres, the patron saint of mixed-race people and all those seeking interracial harmony, who was canonized in 1962. Marion’s favorite phrase is “Wait until the NAACP hears about this,” at which Felix laughs, even though he is not quite sure exactly what the acronym stands for or the purpose of the organization.
Meanwhile, Evgeniya “Zhenya” Kabakova, a Russian immigrant, joins the class, causing some of the children to nickname her “Mrs. Khruschev” and inspiring Rosalie to make extra credit posters for the classroom warning about the dangers of atheist Communists. Zhenya soon proves, however, that Rosalie is no match for the 12-year-old who soon becomes Lonny’s girlfriend, another development that leads to some of the funniest scenes in the book.
Mrs. Funicello makes her appearance on the bake-off broadcast. Felix and his fellow Seaman appear on television, as well. Whether those two broadcasts or the pageant proceed without a hitch cannot be revealed here. Wishin’ and Hopin’ is fast-paced, with no break in the action or laughs, so I strongly recommend that you read it to find out how things turn out for Felix, his family, and classmates.
I read Wishin’ and Hopin’ in conjunction with the 2010 Read ‘n’ Review and the Fall Into Reading 2010 challenges.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one copy of Wishin’ and Hopin’ free of charge from TLC Book Tours as part of the TLC Book Tours review and virtual book tour program. I was not required to write a positive review in exchange for receipt of the book; rather, the opinions expressed in this review are my own. This disclosure complies with 16 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 255, “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”