By the age of nine, Michelle LeBeau has already taken more than a few knocks. Her mom has disappeared—whereabouts unknown—and her dad has unceremoniously dumped her with his aging parents in tiny Deerhorn, Wisconsin and left town. Michelle is Deerhorn's first biracial resident—half Japanese, half white—and she is not allowed to forget it.
Her only friends are a loving spaniel and her grandparents, a charismatic retiree named Charlie, and his dutiful wife, Helen. At best, the kids in town are standoffish; at worst, they're violent and mean, treating Michelle like an inferior mongrel.
Perhaps that's why she turns to adults for friendship. From her first days in Deerhorn, Michelle has gravitated toward Charlie, a real man's man, more comfortable hunting, fishing, and shooting the breeze than attending to the emotional needs of a scared little girl. Yet somehow the two bond and while both benefit from the liaison, Charlie makes no bones about his belief that people should stick to their "own kind." At the same time, his unconditional affection for the child is clear to everyone.
Life in Deerhorn settles into a calm, though tense, stasis—at least until Betty and Joe Garrett move to town, she to work in a local clinic, he to fill in for a teacher on maternity leave. The problem? The Garretts are African American.
Although the action of Wingshooters takes place in 1974, Deerhorn seems untouched by either the civil rights or anti-war movements. Residents are perplexed—and angered—by the changes that have taken place in the body politic over the last decade. Among the unsettling events: Legalized abortion and LGBTQ Pride rallies in nearby Madison and Milwaukee. They're further befuddled by media commentators who posit people of color as the moral and intellectual equivalent of whites.
To say that Deerhorn isn't ready for the Garretts is a gross understatement and residents do everything in their power to make the newcomers feel unwelcome. Even the Catholic priest does his bit, preaching against integration and racial equality.
It's ugly stuff. And it escalates when Joe Garrett accidentally discovers bruises on one of his students. Indeed, when a prime mover-and-shaker in Deerhorn—Charlie's best friend Earl—comes under scrutiny for child abuse, many of the town's most prominent denizens scurry to defend him. What ensues can only be described as tragic, a near-epic battle between good and evil.
Along the way, Revoyr addresses multiple themes, from masculinity, to women's roles, to the meaning of loyalty. They're concepts Revoyr has mined before—in The Age of Dreaming and Southland—but never with such passion.
Wingshooters chronicles the events of one particularly tumultuous year, but more than anything else, this is a novel about love, a touching, emotionally-explosive assessment of the relationship between one child and one elder. A fresh take on the politics of family ties, it eschews easy answers as it reveals the complex web binding granddad and granddaughter.
Michelle's conclusion, articulated as an adult, is insightful: "He taught me how to punch, how to block incoming blows, how to throw rocks back with accuracy and strength. These lessons made my life easier, and the irony strikes me only now: it was my grandfather, the rural, prejudiced white man... who taught me how to survive as a child of color in America."
Wingshooters is a story with jagged edges that lets readers decide if some sins—like racism—are simply too heinous to ever be completely forgiven. It's a heartbreakingly beautiful book by an astute political novelist. Read it with tissues in hand.