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'Rain Village': From farm to circus, a little girl's life journey

Carolyn Turgeon's debut novel finds a young girl who's mostly ignored at home and mostly ridiculed in her few moments away from it and follows her as she runs away to join the circus.

Carolyn Turgeon's debut novel finds a young girl who's mostly ignored at home and mostly ridiculed in her few moments away from it and follows her as she runs away to join the circus.

But "Rain Village" (Unbridled Books, $24.95) is a better novel than that makes it sound. Really.

Tessa Riley is a tiny, sensitive child in a rough family of farmers who are too tired from laboring in the fields to spare much thought about books, education, each other, or the outside world. Tessa feels invisible, since, at barely 4 feet tall in a family of hardy working stock, she is too slight to help with the farmwork and is confined to the house all day, "stretching" her tiny frame by hanging from a rod in a window. "All I know is that it's a terrible thing to be born someone's failure in this world," she thinks, knowing her siblings - a lumbering, clumsy but bigger sister, Geraldine, and two loud, heedless boys - contribute much more to the family's hardscrabble existence.

But when a beautiful, mysterious stranger comes to the Rileys' small town of Oakley, Kan., driving all the men wild and the women to jealousy, Tessa is overcome by curiosity and must meet her.

Mary Finn is an exotic, jolting presence who takes over Mercy Library. A gypsy with a dark past, she fascinates Tessa and the rest of the townfolk with her herbs, spells, dark hair and colorful clothing. Though the women are outwardly resentful of Mary, they nonetheless quietly flock to her for love potions, insight into their husbands' affairs, and homemade concoctions to help various maladies.

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Tessa begins to work at the library, ostensibly helping Mary with the town's records and with keeping track of books, but in reality learning things forbidden to her by her simple, strict father: She learns to read, falls in love with books and learning, and is enthralled by Mary's tales of the circus and her home, a strange place called Rain Village.

"Little by little I just slipped away," Tessa says in describing her growing attachment to Mary and shrinking bonds to her family. "People have a habit of doing that sometimes - just falling away, out of some lives and into other ones, out of one world and into the next."

She and Mary both harbor secrets - for Tessa, abuse at her father's hands; for Mary, the death of her first love back in Rain Village under questionable circumstances - and those secrets begin working at them both. Mary teaches Tessa her circus tricks after the child finds her old costumes and begs to learn, but the memories they dredge up in Mary prove too much to bear, and Mary commits suicide, leaving Tessa adrift and alone.

Tessa leaves Oakley, finds Mary's old circus troupe, and, after convincing the members that she knew Mary and that she had some nascent talent, joins them. She marries a brother from the family of performers, and, for the first time, finds the acceptance, love and security she'd missed as a child. But when a relative of Mary's shows up and wants to find the answers to Mary's past, Tessa is compelled to follow him back to Rain Village, risking her marriage, her family, and the life she's built.

"Rain Village" is the kind of book the reader starts out thinking isn't very good, but by the end realizes it is. Initially unimpressed, this reviewer nonetheless kept turning the page, wanting to see what secrets ||?Page=005 Column=006 Loose,0004.06?||Tessa would unravel, what drove Mary to such despair, whether the novel's diminutive heroine would find what she wanted, and, once she did, whether she would chuck it all anyway.

Turgeon keeps it simple and makes her book an easy read, which helps through some of the rough patches, such as Tessa's stint as a seamstress in Kansas City before she finds her way to the Velasquez Circus. Oakley, Kan., and Rain Village in what seems to be the Pacific Northwest are each, in very disparate ways, fascinating places to visit, and Turgeon makes them all come alive.

But the novel is at its best with its two central characters, Tessa Riley and Mary Finn, each with her own secrets, and her own beauty and grace.

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