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Mary Ford
Boy at the Crossroads
Mary Ford, author
At only 13 years old—arrested for being part of the Mercury Gang because the boys only stole Mercury sedans—Conley Ford, on a whim, decides to run out on probation, skip school, and put his thumb out instead. The 15th of 16 children, Conley discovered early on what it takes to survive. Having learned how to peddle products door-to-door–from tomatoes to soap to hot tamales and more– he’ll take his ingenuity and survival-savvy on the road to find where he belongs away from his overbearing father and tumultuous household. With only fifty cents in his pocket in the fall of 1955, Conley hitchhikes from his home in Halls Crossroads, Tennessee on a journey through Atlanta, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi, only to end up in New Orleans selling hotdogs as a street vendor. But home isn’t always where you make it. Soon, Conley satisfies his need to escape again––and again after that–in hopes that his best life will be waiting just around the corner. Boy at the Crossroads is an adventurous coming-of-age novel about making it on your own and overcoming a hardscrabble childhood.
Ford debuts with the fictionalized coming-of-age story of her husband, Conley Ford, and his rural southern upbringing of poverty, hard knocks, and survival. Conley, one of sixteen children raised by hard working (albeit apathetic) parents in Tennessee, is searching for a way out of his seemingly one-way road to nowhere. After running into some neighborhood troublemakers, he tests the waters with stealing golf balls and eventual car theft, only to land in jail at the age of thirteen– a fiasco that kicks off his first of many attempts to run away and jumpstarts his fierce desire for independence.

Themes of kinship and filial bonds reverberate throughout Ford’s loving account. Conley’s father, in constant survival mode, has a “mean streak,” and often pushes Conley to the breaking point; however, although the hero takes off every time his home life becomes too much to handle, he always returns to the fold after tasting adventure. Readers will be captivated by his classic capers, such as hitchhiking to Florida with a stranger named Al (who uses him to cash bad checks along the way) and being left on his own in New Orleans, where he transforms into a “cracker-jack” hot dog salesman–“Flanked by vendors at least three times my age, I felt like I was part of an army heading into battle to win hungry folks over with a great hotdog.”

Ford’s descriptions stand out, launching readers straight into the 1940s and 1950s for a front-row view of Conley’s tumultuous but entertaining exploits. Americana-minded readers will wax nostalgic at Conley’s hunger for “fishing, squirrel hunting, the Smoky Mountains, grits, and sweet tea” and be absorbed in these rousing tales but also the evocative milieu, from his sister Betty’s “cherry-red lipstick that contrasted with her jet-black hair” to the twelve-cent hamburgers and back roads drag racing. Much like the “Single-lane roads twist like snakes through the trees in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains,” this heartfelt story offers a beautiful ramble through unforgettable territory.

Takeaway: Rip-roaring escapades and nostalgic musings in an American coming-of-age adventure.

Great for fans of: Donna Florio’s Growing up Bank Street, Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing, Lisa Howorth’s Summerlings.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A