“Wish Me Joy, West Virginia” by Valerie Banfield

Those who enjoyed Catherine Marshall’s Christy will enjoy the way faith is incorporated into Valerie Banfield’s Wish Me Joy, West Virginia. Those who enjoyed Kim Michele Richardson’s The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek and Donna Everhart’s The Saints of Swallow Hill will like way Banfield delivers the historical aspects of a small town. And anyone who likes good family fiction will find the story heartwarming.

I thought I knew most of the good stuff there is to know about West Virginia. After all, I spent the first thirty-three years of my life there, graduated from Fairmont State and West Virginia Universities, and was a Golden Horseshoe Winner, an award given to junior high school students for their knowledge of state history. I was wrong.

Valerie Banfield’s Wish Me Joy, West Virginia opened my eyes to a surprising aspect of West Virginia culture. Professional ballet. That’s right—not preserving fruits and vegetables, banjo picking, glassmaking, or telling tall tales—though these are all significant cultural traits. Set in 1955, Banfield’s novel features a young woman who studies ballet under renowned Frenchman Andre Van Damme in the state capital. Charleston, I learned, can boast having one of the ten oldest ballet companies in America. Who knew?

Seventeen-year-old Ellie leaves her small town of Elizabeth behind to pursue her passion for dance. Her mother Fern is none too happy about it. She wants to keep her family together, wrapped in the safety of the known world. One by one, other family members leave too, upending Fern’s sense of security. Her brother Leland injures his foot and can no longer perform the manual labor required by the lumber company. He hates the idea of leaving, but hates the idea of living off charity even more. Leland and his wife Muriel—a former city girl eager to experience the capital’s offerings—also move to Charleston where they find new jobs. Eventually Ellie moves in with them. When the kin folks drive down to the city for Ellie’s performances, they find the city is not as horrible as they had imagined. And as for the ballet? They found “The students bloomed into incredible artists . . . stretching not just their bodies, but their existences. They soaked up discipline and instruction and discovered self-respect, better health, physical strength, and a sense of empowerment.” While ballet may not be as practical a skill as canning the season’s harvest, any parent would be proud to see their children develop those traits. Ellie’s sister Becca also develops an artistic talent; hers is photography. Their mother Fern, like all good mothers, comes to realize her children have to follow their own paths. Some will lead back home, and some will not.

Banfield does an admirable job of capturing small details of Mountain State life: the humor and frustration of driving on windy roads behind slowpokes, the difficulty of newcomers feeling as if they belong, the heavy industrial development of the Kanawha Valley, and the way traffic turns snow into “a mixture of slush, grit, gravel, and dirt.” She also accurately depicts small town pride when the Wirt County High School football team wins the 1955-56 Class B Championship. And finally, she incorporates a healthy dose of the faith the underpins the lives of many West Virginians.

Banfield is the author of fifteen novels, co-author of three West Virginia-themed tales, and recipient of the Cascade Award for Historical Fiction. Originally from the Midwest, she wandered to Florida, took a short jaunt to West Virginia, and then moved westward. These days, she’s counting the stars in Indiana and making new memories with her Hoosier kin.



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