Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1014
Eleven-year-old Hattie Owen lives with her mother and father in Millerton, a town in the northeastern United States, during the 1960s. Her parents run a boarding house where several boarders have been living for years, and Hattie has become friends with all of them—the elderly Miss Hagerty who loves to sew and knit; Mr. Penny, a retired watchmaker who loves clocks; and the newer resident, Angel Valentine, a beautiful young woman who works at the bank. Hattie is very comfortable in her life and enjoys the familiarity of her family and the friends who live in the house with her.
Nana and Papa are Hattie’s grandparents on her mother’s side; they are very wealthy and also live in Millerton. Nana and Papa are rigid in their beliefs about social propriety; any time Hattie and her parents visit, they must be well dressed and follow all of the proper social customs that Nana expects. Nana did not approve of Hattie’s mother marriage to Hattie’s father; in fact, they were quite upset at the choice because Hattie’s dad is just a painter. However, they reconcile themselves to it and everyone is on amicable terms at the beginning of the novel.
The school year is just ending, and Hattie says goodbye to her only friend who is her actual age, Betsy McGruder; Betsy leaves for family vacation at her family’s summer house. Hattie does not mind staying behind; she loves Millerton, the people in the shops, and spending time with her parents. She does not want any of it to change and is looking forward to spending the summer taking walks through the town and painting with her father. Soon, however, her summer is changed drastically. Her mother informs her that she has an uncle who is mentally challenged. His name is Adam and has been living in a special home her entire life; he is Hattie’s mother’s younger brother and is only twenty-two years of age. The special home that had been taking care of Adam is closing, so Adam is coming home to live with Nana and Papa again until they can find another place for him.
Adam arrives and is a very interesting, unique character. He swings between feeling ecstatically happy, intensely angry, and incredibly sad—all very quickly and without warning. Also, he is overwhelmed by a lot of noise and sensory stimulation, which causes him to have panic attacks. Despite his different personality, Hattie immediately connects with him and finds his unfiltered joy refreshing and entertaining. They start spending a lot of time together and form a friendship. Adam develops a crush on one of the boarders at her house, the young and beautiful Angel Valentine; he drops by frequently to try to see her.
Hattie makes another friend that summer, a girl her age named Leila who works with the traveling carnival that comes through town that summer. Eventually, Hattie ends up going to the carnival every day to spend time with Leila; they ride the rides, eat hot dogs, and enjoy one another’s company. One day they even bring Adam along and have a great time with him. Adam and Leila scheme together to put on a birthday party for Hattie for when she turns twelve in July; the party goes well and they all have fun together.
Throughout the summer, Adam’s strained relationship with his parents, Nana and Papa, is apparent. Nana and Papa are embarrassed and overwhelmed by Adam’s noticeably different behavior, and they are constantly trying to force him to behave himself. Adam responds to these restrictions with anger, rebellion, and undisclosed walks through town for hours. Hattie feels that her grandparents are horrible for treating Adam like an untrustworthy child and takes his side in all matters. One night, during a fancy dinner that her grandparents host for their adult friends, she encourages Adam to sneak out of the house and go with her to the carnival. While there, she and Leila convince Adam to ride the Ferris wheel, which he had refused to do the last time he visited. After they get on, the Ferris wheel becomes temporarily stuck with their cart at the top; Adam begins to panic and fidget. He breaks the restraining bar off and tries to climb out, all the while screaming and flailing. The carnival workers end up calling the police, and when they get Adam down, the police take him away in handcuffs. Hattie gets into trouble for encouraging Adam’s trip to the carnival, and they are forbidden to see each other for many days; Hattie is also forbidden to return to the carnival.
About a week later, after Adam bursts into Angel Valentine’s room in the morning to find her in a compromising situation with her boyfriend, Adam runs off, upset. No one can find him for hours; Nana and Papa eventually discovered him in their shed. Unfortunately, he had hanged himself. His tragic death shocks everyone, even the pristine and stoic Nana. At the funeral, the normally introverted Hattie feels prompted to stand up and share her thoughts about her uncle Adam, about his joyful nature and individuality. Her words prompt tears from the audience and offer her a bit of closure for the awful situation. Nana and Papa are horribly disturbed by Adam’s death and take quite a while to recuperate and start functioning in a normal routine again.
During the chaos that came from Adam’s panic attack and death, Hattie didn’t visit the carnival, and when she goes again to talk to Leila, the carnival is gone. Hattie is upset that she did not get to explain her absence to Leila and say goodbye to her good friend. She resolves to write her a letter explaining everything. The story closes as Hattie watches home movies from that summer and reflects on the impact of Adam in her life and the difference that one person can make, even if he is someone who does not fit an expected mold.
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