MR. SAMUEL’S PENNY by Treva Hall Melvin / The Poisoned Pencil, November 2014 – 4.5 Stars
Blurb: It’s 1972 and fourteen-year-old New Yorker Elizabeth Landers is sent to the sleepy town of Ahoskie, North Carolina to spend the summer with relatives. Her expectation of boredom is quickly dispelled when police sirens and flashing lights draw her to a horrible scene at the Danbury Bridge. Mr. Samuel, owner of Samuel’s Lumber Yard, has driven his car off the bridge and into the river, drowning himself and his daughter. The medical examiner thinks it’s an accident, but the sheriff finds fresh bullet holes on the bridge right where the skid marks are.
Curiously, Mr. Samuel died clutching a unique 1909 wheat penny –a penny that is then stolen from the sheriff’s office. Lizbeth witnesses Miss Violet’s grief upon learning that her husband and child are dead, and decides she will help by finding the penny. Her search involves Lizbeth in the lives of many Ahoskie residents. Like the owner of the grocery store, mean old Mr. Jake, who –as all the kids in Ahoskie know –hates black folks. Plenty of pennies in his till. Then there is Ms. Melanie Neely, otherwise known as “Ms. McMeanie,” who thinks the lumber yard should belong to her. And Mr. Samuel’s handsome brother Ben, who struggles to keep the business afloat after his more clever brother’s death. Lizbeth searches through the collection plates at church and in the coin jars of crazy old Aunt Ode, a strange old woman missing one eye and most of her teeth, who keeps a flask in her apron pocket and a secret in her soul.
Review: In the summer of 1972, 14 year-old, African-American Elizabeth Parrot Landers, better known as Lizbeth and her 9 year-old sister, Helena leave their home in New York City to travel south to Ahoskie, North Carolina to visit their extended family. Barely unpacked, Lizbeth and her Auntie Alice hear a string of emergency vehicles racing to the scene of a nearby car accident. Of course they want to help, but to their horror when they arrive, they discover that Joe Samuel, owner of the local lumberyard drove off the Danbury Bridge into the river. Both he and his baby daughter, Emma perish. Shockingly, he holds a Lincoln “wheat” penny, only discovered when the police pull his body out of the water. That same penny vanishes from the sheriff’s department before the medical examiner from the adjacent county arrives.
A coin collector, Lizbeth knows the penny is actually rare; it’s not just one that shows a sheaf of wheat. She explains to her aunt and the sheriff that “the original coin was struck, or made with VDB, the initials of the designer. Three days later, the design was changed, making that initial penny very rare.” Since Mr. Samuel held onto that penny while he and his baby girl drowned, Lizbeth suspects it has great significance and becomes determined to find it and solve the mystery of the deaths. This decision leads her to search the town, involving her in everyone’s lives and their secrets. Of course, she has supporters like Auntie Alice and her husband, Uncle Frank, but Lizbeth has to deal with those who criticize others like Ms. Melanie Neely, better known as Ms. McMeanie. One life lesson follows another, causing Lizbeth to grow and change.
Lizbeth is a girl of her time, an era well described by the author. The turbulent aftermath of the 1960’s pervades the book with the ongoing Vietnam Conflict – not yet known as a war – the Civil Rights Movement, desegregation, covert and overt racism. A trustworthy narrator, Lizbeth describes what she sees and how it affects her family. She shares stories of her parents and what led them to leave North Carolina for New York. Momma is a nurse and Daddy drives a cab after working his day job as a chemist. Lizbeth’s desire to protect her family includes not always sharing everything she knows so her father won’t end up in physical danger and looking after 9 year-old Lena (Helena).
The authentic setting with its lush details adds to the story. Many older readers will remember a more innocent time when kids actually did ride their bicycles all over town, even to the neighborhood grocery. Lizbeth’s first impression of Mr. Jake, the store owner is justifiably a negative one. He does seem to hate his regular customers because of their race. Then, Mr. Jake steps up to help Mrs. Violet Samuel, the widow of the man who died, the mother of Emma. Disturbed by the sound of a baby crying, Violet rushes out of the store without her groceries. Mr. Jake follows, catching up with her in the parking lot. Slowly, Lizbeth begins to realize that people have their own stories and some aren’t easily shared.
These kinds of details add to the story and will remain in the reader’s mind. Unfortunately when something isn’t resolved that also stays with the reader, such as the fact that Pop-Pop, Lizbeth’s grandfather is mentioned at the beginning of the story and then never again. The same thing happens when Lizbeth appears to be the only one investigating the accident – especially when the reader hears someone shot at Mr. Samuel – but don’t really know what /if the sheriff is doing anything. Most readers will immediately realize that Lizbeth’s snooping could lead to disastrous results.
Of course this could all be explained because we’re in her viewpoint for the entire novel and teenagers tend to be self-absorbed at the best of times. Still, the reader was also told that Lizbeth and Lena would be moving around from relative to relative throughout the summer. Instead, they seem to remain with Auntie Alice and Uncle Frank for the duration. Considering the magical story, elegant prose, wonderful writing and superb characterization, these little bumps don’t affect the pacing. It’s to be hoped that Ms. Melvin returns soon to Lizbeth’s world and shares more of her adventures.
Review provided by Shannon Kennedy for her column Shannon’s Space in the May 2016 edition of The Book Breeze.