Title: The Queen of Kentucky
Author: Alecia Whitaker
Other Reviews for This Author: None
I think girl-moving-to-high-school-with-social-problems-and-tween-appeal should be a sub-genre. Except it's an extremely long name for a subgenre. I hesitate to call it middle grade or tween, though, because books in this genre often deal with problems that specifically target older teenagers. Regardless, Poppy specifically is a publisher imprint that appeals to this particular type of young-adult book. Jen Calonita's Secrets of My Hollywood Life series and Joanna Philbin's The Daughters series come to mind. The Queen of Kentucky is of the same nature, but puts a country twist on things. Instead of celebrity and fame clashing with high school...it's farming in Kentucky. While initially off-putting, The Queen of Kentucky is a cute addition to books in this genre that brings a more realistic spin to this type of read.
Country-girl Ricki Jo Winstead has always been a hardworking girl. She's had a long-standing friendship with her neighbor, Luke, who lives on a tobacco farm. Ricki Jo is a classic country girl. She loves rolling in the hay, getting dirty, palling around with Luke, and having fun. Ricki Jo has never felt self-conscious about who she is before. Her friendship with Luke has easily been the best she's ever had, and she's never felt like an outcast with him. Ricki Jo and Luke are starting high school, though, and high school is completely uncharted territory. Ricki Jo has the chance to make a transformation. She doesn't have to be the plain country girl who has to read her Bible every night. She could be someone new.
She could become Ericka. She could become a popular girl. A cheerleader. She's been stuck in a fishbowl of a school until now; Catholic school just isn't like public school. The transition promises to make Ricki Jo's - or rather, Ericka's - transformation a very real possibility. However, she doesn't know many people. A new girl by the name of Mackenzie becomes a fast friend to Ericka, and she soon realizes that it could very well be possible to get in with the popular crowd. Mackenzie is just who Ericka wants to be - the spunky and well-liked new girl who manages to ease herself into the crowd of well-known people with ease. Everything seems to go well. Ricki Jo is slowly becoming Ericka, and the farm girl is melting away into the peppy JV cheerleader.
Ericka soon comes to realize that becoming a new person is harder than it seems to be. Her friendship with Luke is on the rocks as she tries to smother bits of her old self. Bits that Luke knows is a part of Ricki Jo, the girl that he's been friends with for ages. Luke's father also has drunken episodes that increasingly get worse, and Ericka isn't there for her friend like she used to be. She also comes to realize that the popularity game isn't so easy - much like cheerleading. As Ericka becomes more and more ensnared in the idea of popularity, she realizes that leaving her old self behind has consequences. Even the romance department gives Ericka trouble. She has an incredible crush on David Wolfenbaker, aka "Wolf", but all he seems to do is tease her. And what about Luke? Is he really like a brother to her, or is Ericka's closeness to him something more?
The first half of The Queen of Kentucky had me questioning my reading choices. Ricki Jo, or "Ericka", is a protagonist that is really hard for the older reader to get behind initially. A younger reader would find her relative, but even as an older teen reader I've read that song and dance before. Without any celebrity issues in the mix, the book was very much focused on Ricki Jo's transition into Erick and how high school was a social challenge for her. As a result, she starts off as a character that's hard to like. She's easily caught up in the popularity machine, and she doesn't stop to think about a lot of her impulsive decisions because of how young she is and how little she knows about traditional upper-school social constructions. She's also very selfish in her actions, and a lot of them in the beginning hurt other characters that the reader very much likes. It's all character behavior that's real, but it's hard for an older reader to get behind supporting a character that acts like that for over half of the novel. The halfway point, however, became a game-changer for the novel. Ericka becomes more aware of how life is complicated, and she changes from a selfish character an endearing one. Some things fall apart around her, and she realizes that it's bound to happen because of her selfish tendencies. It becomes a surprisingly sweet tale of a girl who realizes who she is and who she isn't. Younger teenagers and older middle-schoolers will appreciate Ricki Jo more so throughout the novel, and I have to admit that her character transformation - the intended and the unintended - was well-executed and managed to make her a character worth following.
The secondary characters will endear themselves more readily to the reader, and for the most part they are well-written and engaging. Luke is the easy favorite, as he is intelligent and kind while still dealing with some dark things. The reader sees his pride and self-preservation, but also his awkwardness as he tries to navigate who his best friend has become with their transition to high school. He's also a very attractive country-boy character, and readers will easily root for him and Ericka to become a couple. (Because he's obviously the best one, but that's just me.) Mackenzie, as well as the rest of the girls Ericka becomes friends with, is a character that will at one point delight and another anger. The girls are very high school in that respect. High school girl dynamics are strange and work at those frustrating levels, so readers will naturally come to understand and sympathize with how Ericka reacts to them. Mackenzie becomes steadily more and more genuine throughout the book, but the reader also sees how the other girls can be shallow and less-than-stellar friends. What's interesting is that Whitaker doesn't intend on making them flat-out antagonistic, and I think that helps the realism of the book stay true to form. Wolf was probably the most frustrating character for me, and that's just because I could never get a handle on him. He's very hot-and-cold in how he acts towards Ericka and the other characters, and at times I felt he sent a little too many mixed-messages to get an idea of who he was as a person, and it didn't help that Ericka's viewpoint with him was already biased. Other minor characters get some fairly nice characterization, but overall the only real stress is on Ericka and the kids her age.
Whitaker's writing is, at the heart of the novel, really easy to read. She has such a unique voice for Ericka, and it feels very genuine to the experience that Whitaker is portraying in the novel. It's down-to-earth and normalized to the way of life in that area of the country. She mentions things like reading the Bible and doing chores in a way that is simple but suggests first-hand experience. It also doesn't seem overdone, which tends to happen if the author overstresses what they want the character's voice to project. I also appreciated that the religious upbringing was subtle and didn't make it uncomfortable for someone who isn't religious to read the novel. Whitaker on the whole really gets how to deal with her characters and their issues, and she addresses a lot of very important topics in The Queen of Kentucky, ranging from parental drinking problems to simple popularity and social issues that occur in a teenager's life. Where Whitaker loses things is in the tailoring of it all. As fun as The Queen of Kentucky is, sometimes the plot threads feel inconsistent. One would see a lot of one social issue before occasionally returning to another one, and it didn't feel like the threads were running consistently throughout the book. I would have liked to see more of Luke's family situation, for instance. There's a lot addressed and not all of it feels consistent with the feel of the story. In some ways, I would have liked to see it addressed later on, or at least in a deeper manner. Whitaker does weave an enticing story despite it all, and the only other complaint is that some sections of the book simply drag because of what's being addressed and because of Ericka's attitude.
The Queen of Kentucky is a pleasant romp into a teen girl's journey into high school. The main character will be hard for older readers to connect to at first, but there's a certain charm about Erick and the side characters that keeps the story interesting. Whitaker deals with some heavy themes, and though they don't always come across as fully-developed, she retains a nice theme of realism and quirk to the book. This is a great read for fans of similar books, and I look forward to seeing where Whitaker goes from here as a novelist.
Cover: It's cute, but it honestly doesn't do much for me. I do enjoy the yellow, though.
Rating: 4.0 Stars
Copy: Received from publisher for review (Thank you, Faye and Little, Brown!!)