The year 1969 was an exciting time in U.S. history: The nation was at war, the hippie movement was in full swing, and the first man walked on the moon. It’s also momentous for 16-year-old Scarlett Blaine: She’ll taste true love for the first time, sell several peach pies, help her brother Cliff build a rocket, and experience tragedy and loss beyond her wildest imagination. More importantly, she’ll learn to trust in God to an extent she never thought possible.
“Chasing Jupiter” is a sweet, nostalgic tale of true love and wild dreams that will put many readers in mind of the popular Wendelin Van Draanen novel “Flipped.” What makes “Chasing Jupiter” stand out—in addition to its colorful characterization and expert first person narration—is the age of its author, a teenager not much older than her enchanting heroine.
Scarlett Blaine has a lot on her plate. With parents who work constantly, a largely absent sister, and a younger brother and grandfather who both suffer from mental instability, it is up to Scarlett to ensure that the house runs smoothly: that the unique and quiet Cliff is fed and looked after, that Grandpop Barley eats more than peanut butter, that the relationship between her parents and the free-spirited Juli is always patched up as best it can be.
The Georgia setting of the novel is painted in a beautiful way, so that the reader often feels scorched by the long, sweltering days, refreshed by a cold drink on a rickety porch, and part of a small community ushering in modern times (such as a man on the moon!) but still holding fast to old traditions. For instance, Scarlett’s mother works at a plantation-turned-bed-and-breakfast and Scarlett’s father works at the peach farms. The old ways may be gone, but they are never quite forgotten.
When Cliff presents Scarlett with his birthday list one summer morning, she’s quite certain she won’t be able to retrieve monkeys from Japan or place eight more moons in the sky, but she will try her hardest to ensure a rocket to Jupiter is built. With the help of the peach farmer’s son, Frank, Scarlett and Cliff begin a memorable summer baking and selling peach pies, rescuing animals stored in Frank’s parents old bomb shelter, and becoming a trio of best friends. A summer isn’t a very long stretch of time, but it allows Scarlett to grow well beyond her years. Just when she is beginning to have trust and faith in God, her world is shattered and, heartbroken, she must pick up the pieces and discover how to move forward when so much is lost.
“Chasing Jupiter” works well because, although God is always present in some sense, the most overt religious tenets are introduced in the latter part of the novel at the point when Scarlett’s faith is most greatly tested. Even then, Scarlett’s relationship with God is believable and the conclusion to her tale is satisfying but more realistic than saccharine or sweet. This is a book one can easily recommend to teenagers who are not familiar with Christian fiction. Scarlett’s faith in God is also quite believable because it is challenged by loss, tempered by doubt, and nurtured by her visits with the kind minister’s wife who helps her refine her baking skills.
I must confess that I was completely caught off-guard by a tragedy that occurs in the last third of the novel. I was heartbroken. It packs quite an emotional punch and sets this typical coming- of-age-during-a-dreamy-summer story on its ear. But on the whole, “Chasing Jupiter” would be a perfect addition to a small group read or book club, especially if the symbol of a rocket to Jupiter is focused on as reflecting the pursuit of God, even when He seems unreachable.
Image copyright Zondervan. Review copy part of the reviewer's personal collection.
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