“My name is Dovey Coe, and I reckon it don’t matter if you like me or not.” This startling opening line of France O’Roark Dowell’s young adult novel Dovey Coe commands instant attention. Dowell’s first published novel plunges readers into the sensitivities of a feisty, insightful 12-year-old who takes no nonsense, talks straight, and whose voice creates a tension that pulls the plotline taut.
Not surprisingly, it was these same words that were the author’s impetus to write the book. Six years ago Dowell was 29, had earned an MFA in poetry, published dozens of poems in literary journals like Shenandoah and New Delta Review, and taught composition for three years at Elon College. She decided what she really wanted to do was write children’s novels, so she moved to Boone and immersed herself in oral histories and writing. She found part-time work as a housekeeper for an elderly woman whom she describes as speaking “in the old-fashioned way that older people native to that part of Appalachia do.” After she made her client lunch, they’d watch The Price is Right and Dowell would lose herself in the speech she found so beautiful.
Dowell had already imagined the name Dovey and knew she wanted to write a novel that took place in the mountains. Then one day, driving home from the woman’s house, the first line burst into her mind. “So suddenly I had this girl named Dovey on my hands, the first line of a novel,” says Dowell, “and even though I had no idea what the story would be about, I could hear her voice very clearly.” It is a voice so true and distinct that, before long, readers know it could only belong to this specific young girl living in a small mountain town during the Depression. Dowell knows Dovey’s voice best of all: “I can still hear it in my head whenever I pick up the book. How to describe it? On the low side for a girl, maybe a teeny-tiny bit like she’s got allergies, full of energy. I’d say she likes the sound of it herself.”
Dovey led the writing and the first draft came fast. “I would just write and write for hours. I think there was one day when I wrote for 16 hours–tapping out all this stuff that Dovey was saying,” Dowell describes the intensity of the experience. “My brain was about five minutes ahead of my hands on the keyboard, which is to say I only knew a little bit of what was going to happen next. I would take breaks and pace around my apartment and think, ‘OK, what’s next, what’s next?’”
What comes next after Dovey Coe’s remarkable opening line is a stunning first paragraph. It ends with the clincher: “I hated Parnell Caraway as much as the next person, but I didn’t kill him.” Parnell Caraway, readers soon learn, is the haughty son of a local merchant and Dovey’s archenemy. When the words first came, Dowell was so completely led by Dovey’s voice that she “had no idea who killed Parnell Caraway, or how Dovey would prove it wasn’t her until the trial was almost over near the end of the book.”
Dovey has a pride that rivals Parnell’s. Unlike many residents in the town of Indian Creek, her family does not rent a home from Parnell’s wealthy father. Even if they did, Dovey would refuse to see herself as victim of poverty, classism, gossip or appearance. She doesn’t think much of wealth and is quick to point out that “Parnell was a prime example of riches not necessarily making a man satisfied with his life … for all them things he had crowding up his life, he still walked around looking for new, shiny things to add to his collections, and Caroline was one of the items on his list.”
Dovey’s allies are as interesting as her enemies, and Caroline, the girl’s beautiful older sister, is only one of many complex secondary characters. Caroline’s relationship with Parnell is unpredictable and unequal. Although she is angry at being judged by her good looks, she uses these gifts shamelessly to gain advantage. Dovey loves her family members and believes they’re special, or as she says, “Us Coes were made of more interesting stuff.” She’s right. Dovey’s father is a jack-of-all-trades who loves music, fiercely adores his family, and is often overcome by strong emotions. Wise and kind, her mother encourages a sense of propriety. Dovey’s brother Amos is bright, deaf, and mischaracterized as crazy by the townsfolk.
Initially rejected by an editor at HarperCollins because the secondary characters were one-dimensional, Dovey Coe‘s range of complex personalities developed over time. “Caroline, for instance, was originally pretty passive, and a little ditzy, and a blonde,” Dowell remembers. “It was great fun revising her and making her a much more complicated person (and a brunette).”
The editor had expressed interest in seeing the manuscript again if revised, so three years after the first draft, Dowell undertook a major overhaul. She “lopped off” the first four chapters, distributed some of these throughout the book and got rid of other parts entirely. Scenes were lost and added, dialogue changed, and six months and two drafts later, Dowell contacted the editor, who had moved to Atheneum, and, this time, she bought the book.
Though secondary characters are strong in the novel, Dovey’s a heroine who will not be forgotten. One of the amazing things about the 12-year-old is her sharp perception of the world and the people in it. Dowell attributes this to the fact that Dovey is a thinker and she finds people interesting. “She has those special gifts,” the author says, “that ensure she’ll never get bored in an airport.” Dowell notes that, “while Dovey certainly has her blind spots, she is pretty good at seeing people for who they are–and like many bright young people, she notices inconsistencies and hypocrisies.” And Dowell has another theory that Dovey’s gift for capturing the insides and outsides of people so fast came from her own years of writing poetry, where, she says “you have to distill and capture the essence of things quickly and memorably.”
Dovey begins the book by seeing life in stark contrasts, and it is this perspective that eventually leads to her growth. Dovey believes her brother Amos needs her, but, in the end, she discovers she is the one who needs him. Her combative dialogue and actions make her the target of assumptions that threaten to condemn her at trial. It’s only at the trial when she is being judged that she understands how she herself has condemned Parnell. As Parnell’s sister cries, she realizes what Amos’ death would mean to her. “I let that feeling sink deep inside me,” she says, “and when Mama took my hand to lead me outside, the tears were falling down my own cheeks.”
Even Dovey’s voice mirrors these contrasts; she speaks with a boldness softened by the lyricism of mountain dialect. Dovey describes the opposing lawyer as “a comical looking sort, as he had no chin to speak of and his eyes was kind of buggy, like a frog’s.” After this frank assessment of his looks, she continues with another metaphor: “He could string words together and make them shine like lights around a Christmas tree.”
Two years after writing Dovey Coe, Dowell began Dream/Girl, an arts magazine by and for adolescent girls. With the help of her husband, Clifton, she’s still writing reviews and editorials, which keep her keenly aware of the young adult audience. “My assumption as a children’s writer and as editor of Dream/Girl is that there will always be young people who are serious readers and writers, artists and thinkers, and that’s who I’m aiming at. The response I’ve gotten to Dream/Girl, the great letters and e-mails I get from girls, the amazing writing they send me, suggests to me that my aim is pretty true.” The Web site linked to the magazine, www.dgarts.com, hosts interviews with writers like Eleanora Tate and Sarah Dessen, and gives lots of ideas about writing. Constantly aware of that audience while editing Dream/Girl, Dowell doesn’t think much about adolescents when writing fiction because “it might freak me out. I mean, you can’t write a book for kids with an imaginary chorus of 11-year-olds in your head intoning ‘Bo-ring!’”
Now Dowell has a child of her own, and 1-year-old Jack is “the light” of her life. She juggles motherhood with new projects, and crams as much as she can into his generous nap times. When she’s not sweeping Cheerios off the kitchen floor, she’s working on a new novel entitled The Book of Houses, and revising a previous work, The Secret Language of Girls, a novel-in-stories. As if that weren’t enough, she’s also starting a Web site with a bunch of friends that she hopes will be up and running by July. ModHousewife.com is “a site for folks who once dressed in black and stayed out all night dancing and have since been domesticated.”
The involved and direct Dowell may have been changed by outspoken Dovey Coe, for she wasn’t always so forthright. When she began writing in the second grade, she never thought of herself as a writer, or told people that was what she wanted to be when she grew up. And though she read children’s novels for years, she didn’t always admit to it. “Once I was buying a children’s novel and the clerk asked me how old the girl I was buying the book for was,” she says. “For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to say that the book was for me, so I said, ’11.’”
There may have been more truth to that statement than she realized. When Dowell first attempted writing children’s fiction, and began to study what was up in the world of early teens, it struck her that she was about the most 11-year-old person she knew. “There is part of me that is stuck like glue to my 11th year in Charlottesville, Va., in 1975,” she explains. “We’ve seen changes in technology, social structure and the media, but even though those changes do affect kids and how they perceive the world, biology doesn’t change, and neither does the human heart.”