All is sunny in 11-year-old Iris' world at the opening of this initially simple, sweet novel set in the richly imagined Minnesota town of Wishbone (near non-imaginary Mankato) in the 1970s. Iris is the only child of a pretty, pensive housewife and a rangy, chipper dad who runs the town's creamery. She likes to walk there after school to get ice cream treats and watch real butter -- not margarine, or even that overprocessed butter you buy in those brand-new big supermarkets -- being made. With her best friend, Sylvie, and her cousins, Iris experiments with makeup, plays with Barbies, listens to Shaun Cassidy records and WCCO Radio weather reports and eats those tidy, delicious new TV dinners in her parents' big, warm, old house.
Then, the fall she enters seventh grade, things start to change. Her mother smokes and cries more often and disappears sometimes, or ships her off to her grandmother's house without explanation. Her dad starts to look worn out and hints that the creamery is in financial trouble. One day, they tell her that she's adopted, and despite their reassurances, she starts to wonder why her "real" mother gave her up, and whether she'll be given up again by these parents. Sylvie grows distant and starts to hang out with inexplicably more popular girls who flip their hair and say nasty things. Worst of all, her parents, who seem to be trying to cheer themselves up about something, decide to adopt another child, a 12-year-old boy named Adam who is mysterious and a little menacing, and whose birth mother shows up occasionally to cause a ruckus.
It would give away too much to reveal what happens next, but suffice it to say that many things happen, and even though they're not what you'd expect, they make perfect, sad sense as they unfold. In addition to being a spot-on period piece and coming-of-age tale, this story is a page-turner, with a sophisticated sort of suspense that you usually find only in, well, real life.
It's always risky for a novelist to tell a story through the eyes and mind of a child, but Iris is a credible and endearing narrator, and "Butter" is told just as an 11-year-old might, naively but with enough information that grown-up readers can make out far more of what's going on than she can, and with touches of youthful poetry that our young protagonist is not aware of.
Despite the plot's mounting disquietude, the book also is a treat for anyone who grew up in small-town 1970s Minnesota. The landscape, the architecture, the weather, the food, the speech, the cultural clutter all ring true, whether they're the backdrop to children's casual play or to some awful occurrence.
Panning, who now teaches and lives in New York, grew up in Arlington, Minn., a small Sibley County town. She brings a decidedly regional feel to the novel, despite its broad themes. Iris, estranged from so much and yet longing to belong, is always an adolescent we understand and care about, and one whom we might even have known or been. Here's hoping Panning considers letting her live and grow in a sequel or two.
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.