"Eleven Miles to Oshkosh"
Author: Jim Guhl
Publisher: The University of Wisconsin Press
Price: $24.95 (Hardcover)
“Eleven Miles to Oshkosh” is a young adult novel, set in the fall of 1972, during the Nixon-McGovern campaign. Set in Winnebago County, Eastern Wisconsin, it is not the kind of book that I normally review.
Most of this novel, allowing for weather and food choices, could happen anywhere, but there is a special connection to Alabama.
The protagonist, 15-year-old Delmar Finwick, is going through a very rough patch.
Weighing in at 84 pounds, Del, nicknamed Minnow, is the smallest boy in the tenth grade. He is bullied mercilessly by the thugs at school he rightly calls creeps, goons and dirtballs, who actually take his lunch money and sometimes punch him just for fun.
No internet is involved, just plain face-to-face meanness.
All this is on top of the terrible fact that Del’s father, a deputy sheriff, has recently been shot in the line of duty and Sheriff Heiselmann does not seem to be much interested in finding the killer.
But, despite his size, Del is healthy and fit, not feeble at all. He rides his bike, named Ike, all over town, and on Saturdays dives into the icy Fox River to retrieve lost fishing lures–Cleos, Rapalas and Daredevils—which he sells at a local flea market.
Del also has good friends, and he and his buddies set up a great prank against Shattuck High’s rival school Menasha High. His grandfather Asa, a WWI vet, teaches him to drive his standard shift pick-up truck, even though he is too young to have a license or even a learner’s permit, and to shoot a 12-gauge shotgun so they can go duck hunting. Del even discovers some talent at acting and tries out for the part of Romeo. Sleuthing on his own to find his father’s murderer, known as the Highway 41 killer, he is amazingly successful.
The author of this debut novel, retired engineer Jim Guhl, has, obviously, set in motion several plot lines simultaneously, and although this might have become confusing, it doesn’t. These plotlines come together largely because of the “new girl” at school.
On her first day at Shattuck High, Opal Parsons is bullied in the hallway by the dirtballs. Del is horrified and deeply embarrassed that he is unable to prevent it. He would like to be the hero for Opal, who is the first and only African-American student in the school. Del has a crush on her instantly: “Her skin looked like liquid chocolate. Her nose turned up a little like a miniature ski jump and her cheeks were a pair of perfect, round, pitcher’s mounds.” Del and his metaphors are really very innocent.
Del is searching for a way to bring pressure on Sheriff Heiselmann and spark some progress on his father’s killing and, as it happens, Opal’s family has moved from Alabama, where her mother, Mrs. Parsons, was a civil rights activist. In fact, she marched at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.
With her help, during Christmas break, they organize a march from Neenah to Oshkosh, eleven miles, carrying signs and keeping themselves warm by singing the songs Mrs. Parsons teaches them: “If I Had a Hammer” and “This Train Is Bound for Glory,” all new to the Wisconsinites. The media, including TV, have been alerted and show up.
This attracts attention all right, the attention of drug dealers and killers, and the last third of the novel is filled with some dangerous, even deadly, action—including a car chase across frozen Lake Winnebago, and hand-to-hand combat, which engaged me, not a young adult reader, perfectly.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.