"My Last Days as Roy Rogers," by...


"My Last Days as Roy Rogers," by Pat Cunningham Devoto. Warner. 368 pages. $20.

Tab Rutland is a feisty little girl growing up in Bainbridge, Ala., where the Ladies Help League is the pinnacle of social acceptance, where the threat of polio lurks in every twilight, and where Gene Autry and Roy Rogers ride the plains at the local theater.

The celluloid cowboys will keep riding, as long as the town doesn't close every last public place. In this particular, mid-1950s summer, polio makes the residents of Bainbridge hide in their homes to avoid the disease.

Against that backdrop, Tab is unconsciously saying goodbye to her innocence.

I wish there was more conflict to discuss in "My Last Days as Roy Rogers," but there's not. Normally, that would move me to put the book down, but there is something engaging about Pat Cunningham Devoto's writing that makes her debut novel imminently readable. You start not to mind that there's no great mountain to cross, partly because the characters are so finely drawn, and partly because in the right hands, the little mountains can be just as interesting.

Devoto lends much ink to descriptions early on, but pay attention. The descriptions are important, and they help the story build into a nice tale. Devoto, a Southerner, has an ear and eye for the vagaries of family and loyalty, and she has taken care to make Bainbridge a land of very human people.

Among the residents of Bainbridge is Maudie May, a tough, African-American girl who resolutely sets out to befriend Tab, and then just as resolutely sets out to raise money for school supplies for her brothers. John McMillan is a little boy who lives in the basement of his house to avoid the threat of polio, but life oozes in, anyway. Miss Maydean runs a fishing camp with a shotgun at her side. You grow to like them all.

Pub Date: 01/24/99

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