It’s unlikely you’ve heard of No Earthly Notion by Susan Dodd. It’s a short novel published in 1987. Long ago I happened upon the Penguin, Contemporary American Fiction paperback. If ever there was a publishing brand you could trust, Penguin, Contemporary American Fiction was it.

The protagonist, Murana Bill, is left orphaned when her parents are killed in a train wreck and she is just old enough to take on responsibility for her younger brother, Lyman Gene. She sees him through high school. He joins the army, and then returns from Vietnam, more in need of her care then ever before. To tell more of the plot would diminish your joy in reading it, so to put it simply, this is a novel where not much happens, but we, as readers, are made to connect with Murana, a character whom in “real life” we wouldn’t even see if she were right in front of us.

Kirkus found it “soddenly sentimental.” There’s a touch of Southern gothic about it as well. After Lyman Gene’s return his only pleasure is food and Murana feeds him. The people that Murana gets close to all have a way of dying off. In the hands of a lesser writer, Kirkus‘ verdict might be correct, but Dodd saves her story by employing a stylistic minimalism that says more with less, and shows both restraint and control. Dodd is unsparing in her portrait of Murana, and avoids sentimentality by staying true to her character. There’s no sudden transformation, no easy solution. This isn’t about a woman losing three hundred pounds, or an ugly duckling turning into a swan. It’s about baby-steps, which in themselves are both ordinary and miraculous.

The last line of The Office series finale was “There’s a lot of beauty in ordinary things.” That would make a fine epitaph for this novel as well.

Availability: Not on Kindle, but you can find it new and used starting at $0.01

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