At the beginning of Wish You Well, we see the Cardinal family enjoying a picnic. Jack Cardinal, the respected author, has taken his wife Amanda and his two children Lou (12) and Oz (5) out to the country for a family day.
Their lives are abruptly turned upside down on the trip home. In an instant, Jack is gone and Amanda is left in a catatonic state.
Oz and Lou's only living relative is their great-grandmother, Louisa Cardinal. She lives in the rural mountains of Virginia. The children know of her because she raised their father as a young boy.
When the children arrive at the farm, they realize they are far away from their New York City home. Louisa greets them with open arms, but it will take time for these children to come to grips with the fact that the farm is now where they live. It comes as quite a shock that this place has no running water, phones or electricity, even in 1940.
Wish You Well documents the poignant journey of these children as they try to become residents of the mountain. They wake at dawn to do chores before school. After school, they do more chores on the farm and explore the mountainside.
It is on this land that Lou and Oz learn about life. There are good people and bad people up here, as is the case in any location. This story introduces us to many interesting characters, most likely based on stories the author has heard from his own family.
Though the area has a coal mines and a lumber company, none of the residents is wealthy by any standard. We see that they live by the will of God. When it rains, they have crops and eat. When it doesn't, they get by until the next year.
Yes, Lou and Oz grow up fast on this mountain. They have no choice. However, the biggest lesson of all comes in the form of a court battle over the very land that has been in their family for generations. It seems Louisa's land has something very valuable on it, and big business wants to take it from her. Can the mountain be preserved or will it become another victim of progress?
If you're familiar with David Baldacci's work, you must be confused right about now. He's known for his thrillers, right? Well, it appears Mr. Baldacci is going home again. In the introduction of Wish You Well, Baldacci states his reason behind the sudden change:
Though I am known for my suspense novels, I have always been drawn to the stories of the past in my native Virginia, and the tales of people living in places that sharply limited their ambitions, yet provided them with a richness of knowledge and experience few have ever attained. Ironically, as a writer, I've spent the last twenty years or so hunting for story material, and utterly failed to see a lumberyard full within my own family.
So, there you go. Though I enjoyed Wish You Well, I also like Baldacci's trademark novels, so I hope he's been stirring the suspense pot while cooking up this little story.
I don't want to make light of the novel, but it reminded me of "The Waltons Meet Ben Matlock." Baldacci gives a vivid description of the way of life up there on the mountain in 1940. Most of the residents have very little income. To the folks down the mountain, they seem to be uneducated and crazy to live without electricity, phones and water. However, what the reader sees are very intelligent people who know a great deal about farming. They make what they need and assist each other when more help is required. Overall, the people on the mountain are more satisfied with their lives than the folks down the hill with all the luxuries and amenities.
So what do you think? Does it sound like a book you would enjoy? I'll admit, it was a bit strange reading this story of one family's hard, yet satisfying life as told by a premiere suspense author. I liken the experience to Stephen King writing a perfectly good non-horror story. Would people accept the change?
I recommend Wish You Well with one caveat. This is not a legal thriller. The court case happens late in the story. Rather, this is the story of one family's triumph and tragedy in the Virginia mountains.
My analogy of "The Waltons meet Ben Matlock" is a good one. If you can handle that type of story, then this book is for you. If you can appreciate the beauty of 1940 rural Virginia as described by the author, then this book is for you. If you enjoy seeing these two children learn to adapt outside of the city with the only living family they have, then this book is for you.
I must admit, it was a bold move for Baldacci to stray from his bestselling suspense reputation and write a heart-felt story. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall of those editors meetings. My opinion? The transition works to a point. While I enjoyed Wish You Well, I still hope to read some new thrillers by David Baldacci in the future.