Review: The Greatest Man in Cedar Hole; Stephanie Doyon

A beautifully told character-driven story (4 stars)

Source- personal copy

Published by Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005

Paperback edition- 375 pages 

Welcome to Cedar Hole: a small town where people are born exist and then die, rarely venturing out into the wider world. Known un-affectionately as the ‘armpit’ of Gilford County, Cedar Hole is notorious for its defunct railroad and apathetic, under-achieving townsfolk. Most famous of these under-achievers are the over-breeding, loutish Pinkham family, particularly young Francis ‘Spud’ Pinkham who is the whipping boy of his nine older sisters. Relegated to a life of hand-me-down clothes and assigned to sleeping in the pantry, Spud’s path is destined never to run smoothly. 

In complete contrast to Spud is Robert J. Cutler, the town’s golden boy. Optimistic, hard-working and filled with an unshakeable faith that puzzles those around him, he and Spud clash from the outset. In a bitter rivalry that follows them from their early school years and into adulthood, Spud must emerge from Robert’s shadow and learn just what it takes to become the greatest man in Cedar Hole. 

I just loved this book. The premise had sounded appealing but it proved to be so much better than I anticipated. Part of its charm lies in the fact that it is slow-moving and more character-driven than spurred on by any kind of plot, allowing you to really get to know the protagonists and become accustomed to the small-town lifestyle in which they inhabit. The pace is almost languid and laced with vivid, vibrant descriptions of the town and its surroundings, drawing you right into the storyline. 

Character-wise there are some really well-written protagonists. The focus of the story remains very much on Spud really, from the outset. As a child you pity him- he is sort of thrust into the background of his very large family and terrorised by his older sisters, in particular the monstrous Jackie. After nine girls, by the time a boy actually came along it seems like his parents were pretty indifferent to any more children, including a much longed-for son, so you have to feel somewhat sorry for him. Spud spends much of his time trying to fade into the background, whether by a conscious or unconscious action and on the one occasion where he really does try to shine, he is treated unfairly, so it is no wonder he is such a bitter individual from time to time and does not really like to try and better himself. Such continual knock-backs will undoubtedly resonate with a lot of people out there; you question yourself as to what is ultimately the point. 

Robert, I must confess, I thought at the start, was something of a ‘Gary Sue’ i.e. the perfect, unflawed character. It is only as you get to understand him and his circumstances, including the situation with his parents, that you comprehend exactly why he pushes himself in the way that he does and why he is such an idealist. Robert genuinely does want to make the best of every situation and also improve Cedar Hole, no matter what the detriment to himself. His optimism may be annoying and I can see why he rubbed people up in the wrong way, but I truly do think there was no malice in him whatsoever. Deep down, I think he may have even envied Spud for his close friendships and large family. 

The secondary characters were pretty well done, too- from the stereotypical bumbling cop to the prim librarian and a lot of mean-spirited, nosy individuals thrown in for good measure. Cliché perhaps, but entertaining nonetheless and a lot of them genuinely had warm hearts. I like how the author talked about the same people most of the way through the book- by that time you knew who was who and saw how they had grown as people and recognised the nature of their intertwining relationships. Some characters I liked, others were just very frustrating- particularly Robert’s wife, Bernie. Bernie is the sort of bitter, spiteful person you actually want to reach into the book and shake some common sense into! That said, readers will probably enjoy disliking both her and the boys’ school teacher- the slutty, alcoholic Miss Pratt 🙂 

Certain aspects of this novel reminded me of the ‘Big Stone Gap’ books by Adriana Trigiani, which I read years ago and fell in love with. It’s possibly due to the insular small town American setting and how well the characters are written and engage with one another, but some parts of the book also read a bit like a Fannie Flagg novel too. I loved all of its nods to a more old-fashioned, sedate America- such as dates at the soda fountain, lawnmower rodeo and sarsaparilla. 

This charming, poignant story of hopes, dreams and small town life was wonderfully written and offered the perfect escapist reading outlet for me at a time when I really needed it- and also offered a valuable message at its ending and some interesting life lessons. Though this author is better known for her young adult series, I would certainly welcome reading more books by her aimed at older readers in future.

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