For small-town Iowa accountant Tandy Caide, it was the year everything fell apart. Or came together.

Tandy is a second-generation CPA who runs her daily affairs, and her little corner of town, by the book. She makes life decisions on the merits of the math. She not only minds the ledgers and tax returns of the oddball townsfolk, but also faithfully guards their scandals and secrets from the prying eyes of nosy neighbors. Her customers can tell her anything, and they do. Everyone knows Tandy Caide is a stand-up businesswoman.

In her reproachful narrator’s voice, Tandy derides the attitudes of “you people” from “big cities along the river” who couldn’t possibly understand her complicated love/hate relationship with the place where she grew up. She is perfectly comfortable in her eccentricities. She walks around in a homely, overstuffed Lands’ End coat she scored in an eBay auction and hangs out with two retired curmudgeons who were friends of her now-dead father. Yet she is not without ambition. At one point she considers a job in the glamorous metropolis of — gasp! — Dubuque, only to realize, in a reverse Mary Tyler Moore sort of way, that she’d never make it after all.

She wasn’t expecting a new man to blow into town and upset her comfortable equation.

“The Annie Year,” so named for the high school musical being performed that fall, is a story rich with Midwestern insider jokes, reverence and sensibilities that anyone who’s had a taste of small-town life can relate to.

This story is no “Tandy of Mayberry,” no portrait of a sleepy, rural paradise full of happy campers. Her backwater town has dilapidated clapboard houses and a thriving underground meth business and a main-drag hangout whose neon sign spells out a vulgarity because key letters are burned out. It is peppered with broken dreams, long-buried scandals, a scurrilous teenage pregnancy, drunks and dead-end existences. It’s easy to see how the self-disciplined accountant could find her head turned by the newly arrived, long-haired, mysterious vocational-agriculture teacher, an unlikely attraction that leads to a lustful affair that will change her life forever — or maybe just for an “Annie” year.

This is a keeper, a fresh and quirky “Main Street” for the Midwest (without all that deep social commentary that got Sinclair Lewis into so much trouble). But unlike Lewis’ bleak satire and unflattering portrayal of his small Minnesota town, Minneapolis editor Stephanie Ash writes with a wry smile and an obvious adoration of Iowa small-town life. Its faux-preachy tone keeps us — snooty types from the big cities along the river — at arm’s length while Ash’s character embraces her imperfect corner of the world.

It’s a bold first novel by Ash. We hope she makes it, after all.


Ginny Greene is a Star Tribune copy editor.

The Annie Year
By: Stephanie Wilbur Ash.
Publisher: Unnamed Press, 250 pages, $16.