An Unfinished Season: A Novel by Ward Just

Ward Just’s novel about the loss of innocence is the type of novel that can sneak up on a reader with its unassuming style and emotional power. Told in the steady voice of narrator Wils Ravan, An Unfinished Season (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 251 pages) is set mostly in and around Chicago during the 1950’s. Wils, who will soon enter the University of Chicago, spends his summer divided between working for a tabloid newspaper and attending the obligatory debutante balls: seersucker jacket by day, tux by night. These diversions, and the promise of leaving home for his own future at the end of the summer, make it easier for Wils to turn away from the troubled turn in his parents’ marriage, something Wils can define only as “unequal grief”. When at one of the dances Wils encounters a girl unlike those he has met before, he finds himself entering her world and leaving behind his own. Aurora Brule captures his heart, but it is her father Jack, a man who zealously guards his innermost demons, who haunts Wils long after the summer ends.

This surprising complex novel is only 250 pages long and yet it manages to weave in the political and historical atmosphere of the time, with the McCarthy hearings and tabloid journalism and the relative innocence of the upper class. It evokes a time when the country’s own innocence was on the brink of disillusionment. Written without quotation marks, this book demands slightly more concentration that a more traditionally punctuated novel, but the confident language of Wils’s voice makes it easy to navigate.

I highly recommend this novel for readers of literary fiction, especially those who like fiction in the style of Tobias Wolff’s Old School. This intimate look into the turbulent summer of a teenage boy deserves a place on the bookshelves of serious readers.

Debbie Lee Wesselmann, author of Trutor and the Balloonist (1997) and Captivity (2008).

Excerpt from An Unfinished Season.

“The winter of the year my father carried a gun for his own protection was the coldest on record in Chicago. The winter went on and on, blizzard following blizzard, each day gray with a fierce arctic wind. The canyons of the Loop were deserted, empty as any wasteland, the lake an unquiet pile of ice beyond. Trains failed, water pipes cracked, all northern Illinois was locked in, the air as brittle as a razorblade. The newspaper story that had everyone talking was the account of a young colored woman found frozen solid in an alley on the South Side and taken at once to the city morgue, where an alert doctor discovered the faintest of heartbeats. She was revived, thawed as you would thaw a frozen piece of meat, and in the course of the subsequent examination was found to have so much gin in her veins that—”Jeez, it was like she had swallowed antifreeze,” the doctor said. Religious leaders, ignoring the lurid details in the papers, declared her survival a miracle. She was a young woman touched by the hand of the son of God. Jesus had visited Chicago and saved the humblest and most destitute of his creatures, praise the Lord.

My father was born on a farm on the prairie north of Chicago and insisted that this winter was nothing compared to the winters he had endured as a boy, interminable winters when the snow reached to the eaves of the roof; and when the western wind from the plains blew away the snow, the icicles remained, icicles as thick as your arm. My father had an imaginative memory stacked with stories and often different versions of the same story. One time he had the wind howling like wolves and another time wolves howling like the wind. When he told his stories, my mother always rolled her eyes and winked at me.”

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