Sharon Fiffer’s “stuff” books are dangerous – read one, and you might be eyeing your mother’s or grandmother’s aprons or dishtowels as “vintage”, or remembering those salt and pepper shakers belonging to same that were given away without a second thought. In the opening scene of Buried Stuff, series heroine Jane Wheel is practically having a heart attack because she’s finally agreed to a garage sale to clear out some of her own stuff (which apparently packs her entire house, stem to stern). Jane’s friend, and flashier antiques picker/dealer, Claire Oh has helped to set it up and keep Jane on the straight and narrow – Jane doesn’t want to give up a thing. Almost before the garage sale is over, though, Jane gets a call from her parents back home in Kankakee, Illinois – their old friend Fuzzy has found some bones in his backyard, and could Jane’s husband Charley (a geologist) come have a look at them? Since Jane had neglected to plan a family vacation, Charley and son Nick quickly convince Jane that it would be fun to “camp” out in the cabin behind Fuzzy’s house while they look at the bones. Jane agrees – against her better judgement. When she gets to Fuzzy’s she remembers that she hates camping, the dark, and using an outhouse (I’m in full agreement with her there).
Spicing up this novel is an explication of Jane’s relationship with her parents, Nellie and Don, who since time immemorial have run the E-Z Way Inn, a local bar and grill where Nellie’s soup is one of the best things about downtown Kankakee, a town in the downward slide in the manner of so many small midwestern farm towns – and a theme of this well put together book. Nellie, practical, insanely clean, and very unsentimental, is somewhat of a mystery to the emotional Jane who hoards her things and actually goes to women’s groups (Nellie wants to know what in heck they talk about). Things are complicated, of course, when a body is found in Fuzzy’s cornfield and it looks like Fuzzy himself is the main suspect. This gentle story is deceptively simple – there’s lots of “buried stuff” here – and not just the pennies and rocks that Fuzzy appears to be hiding in his garden for no apparent reason. There’s the buried feelings between Jane and her mother as well as the simmering and puzzling relationship between Fuzzy and his wife, Lula. Added to this mix is the idea of Jane’s friend, Tim, to put Kankakee on the map by holding a city wide garage sale – a prospect that is making not only Jane, but Tim and the aforementioned Claire Oh, salivate with the idea of the possibilities of the buried stuff that’s in Kankakee garages and attics.
This is a sweet story about a mother and daughter, a husband and wife, and one woman’s love of “stuff” as well as her ability to solve a mystery – though she’s has lots of help, she loves to play Nancy Drew and often refers to her. She even borrows Tim’s red “roadster” in one memorable scene.