Sometimes a book comes along where if you can get past the first two chapters, you’ll be OK. In the case of “Jo Joe,” if you can get past the second paragraph, you’re home free. Don’t overthink it, just keep reading. What threw me is that the protagonist of the story talks about going back to Black Bear, Pennsylvania, and returning to Paris.
I’ll be the spoiler here and let you know: the protagonist, Judith, has lived in Black Bear and Paris, as well as Africa, and she’s coming home to Black Bear to settle the estate of her grandmother. The people of Black Bear haven’t treated her well, so she returns with a huge chip on her shoulder.
Judith’s mother is deceased, her father has remarried, and Judith is staying with her grandparents by default. The only people that she loved and trusted were her grandparents and a boy named Joe. A big beefy guy, Joe takes Judith under his wing and protects her from the school bullies. She needs that protection because Judith isn’t like any other kid in school. She’s black, Jewish and speaks both French and English.
Judith’s initials are J and O, so Joe turns that into a personal nickname for her. Joe is taken into the family since his father is an abusive alcoholic, and Judith’s grandparents see potential in Joe. The two teens are inseparable, until their senior year when Joe suddenly turns against his beloved Jo.
Crushed by his betrayal, Judith vows to leave Black Bear and never come back. She goes to Paris to reconnect with her father, and has a brief career in investments. She follows her heart to Africa where she establishes a foundation for women in poverty.
Judith keeps in touch with her grandparents by mail and phone. They meet her in various places, but she keeps her promise to her grandmother to never return to Black Bear. And then she gets a mysterious message through the foundation that she needs to break her promise and come back to Black Bear because her grandmother is failing.
By the time Judith gets the message and gets back to the United States, however, her grandmother is already gone. Now all that’s left is to clean up the estate, sell everything off, and shake the dust from her shoes. And then she learns from the lawyer that Joe will inherit a sizeable chunk of the estate. In addition, his name appears on Grandma’s checks.
Judith hires a lawyer to contest the will, and he in turn, hires a private investigator to find out how Joe weaseled his way back into the good grandmother’s graces. But first Judith has to face her tormentors at the funeral.
Author Sally Wiener Grotta understands what it’s like to grow up in a small town, where everyone knows your business and doesn’t hesitate to gossip with others about it. Thankfully, she knows that people can either embrace those quirks or reject them. People also have the ability to learn and grow.