'Nora, Nora' is sweet, nostalgic look at South

Despite their names, permanents don't last forever.

But try telling that to thin, awkward 12-year-old Peyton McKenzie, the main character in Anne Rivers Siddons' appealing new novel, "Nora, Nora," set in the small-town South in 1961.

Even before status-conscious Aunt Augusta drags her off to Rich's in Atlanta for a makeover, Peyton's self-esteem is near zero. After all, didn't Peyton cause her mother's death when she was born? And didn't her distant lawyer-father, Frazier, become even more detached after Peyton's soldier-brother Buddy died in a training accident when she was 5? And, finally, isn't she a charter member of the self-proclaimed Losers Club along with fat, pale Ernie Longworth and club-footed Boot, the 8-year-old grandson of the McKenzie housekeeper, Chloe?

And so when Mr. Antoine twirls her around to see a helmet of butter-yellow curls where once there were brown pigtails, Peyton is stunned into silence. And later, when she has tried to repair the damage in the bathtub and ends up with dun-colored Brillo, Peyton knows there is really only one way for this bad-hair day to end -- she climbs up in the dogwood tree and won't come down, despite entreaties from Chloe and her father.

It is only when a cousin she has never laid eyes on clambers up the tree in the pearly light of dawn that Peyton thinks that perhaps life might be worth living. Peyton can hardly take her eyes off the exotic, red-headed young woman from Florida, who drives a pink Thunderbird, smokes Salems and uses swear words. She's never met anyone like Nora Findlay.

And neither have most people in little Lytton. Nora hits town "like a comet, trailing delight and outrage in equal parts in her wake." Those in "the Aunt Augusta Camp" wag their tongues at what they view as Nora's free and easy ways, her solo trips to Atlanta, her teaching "dirty" books as a substitute English teacher at the town's segregated high schools. The students in "the School camp" know better than to tell adults about Nora's classes -- the Santeria ritual drums Nora brought from her time in Cuba, the discussions of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

As for Peyton, after some initial reluctance, she basks in Nora's reflected brilliance. And why not? Nora gives her a lost kitten, an Audrey Hepburn haircut, a journal in which to write her thoughts. Peyton doesn't understand why her beloved grandmother, Agnes McKenzie, with her gift for the second sight, isn't all that thrilled with Nora. "I can't see good or bad this time," the elderly woman tells Peyton, insisting she wear a protective herb amulet. "It's like fog. I don't know what it means."

There's nothing subtle about Siddons' foreshadowing. From Nora's arrival in town and her early remarks on Lytton's lack of progress when it comes to civil rights, readers are aware that Nora and the more tradition-bound townspeople are on a collision course. But what's not so predictable is the subsequent return of a local legend, his affect on Nora and Peyton's own role in a betrayal.

"Nora, Nora" (HarperCollins, $25) harkens back to Siddons' luminous first novel, "Heartbreak Hotel," which was also a coming-of-age story set in the early civil-rights era but with a somewhat older heroine.

One wishes Siddons had developed some of her secondary characters more fully instead of relying on types. Augusta's social snobbery, for example, arises out of shame of her own background. Frazier McKenzie's too much like Atticus Finch not to bring images of Gregory Peck to mind. And his mother, with her intriguing psychic abilities, vanishes from the story all too quickly.

Still, "Nora, Nora" is sweetly evocative, even nostalgic, in its portrayal of a pivotal time in Southern history and a young girl's life.

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