The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had by Kristin Levine

Jun 18, 2013

If someone confronted me with the question, "What is your favorite genre?" I'd be hard-pressed to narrow it down to just one. Last year, my five favorite books were all from different categories: Unbroken (nonfiction, historical, biographical), The Happiness Project (nonfiction, self-help), Edenbrooke (fiction, Regency romance, chick lit), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (realistic fiction, historical fiction (early 20th century), classic), Rebecca (fiction, Gothic, classic). (Disclaimer: I'm no English major, so I'm categorizing these books to the best of my knowledge.)

But I definitely have favorites genres (emphasizing the plural), and one of those is historical fiction. Of course, once you say "historical fiction," that opens up a whole new set of classifications. For me, I tend to gravitate toward books set in the 20th century in the United States or Europe but am willing to try almost any time period.

This is all just background fluff so that when I tell you that my book club selected The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had (historical fiction set in 1917 Alabama), you'll know that I was more than happy to read it.

Harry "Dit" Sims is twelve years old and somewhat lost in his family of ten children. When his best friend goes on vacation, he resigns himself to a summer of boredom. But then, a new postmaster moves into Moundville, and Dit is hopeful that he will have a son just his age. When Emma Walker steps off the train, Dit can see instantly that she is refined, intelligent, and definitely not a boy. She is also black. Dit befriends her out of a sense of duty, a spirit of kindness, and a fit of boredom. But as tension increases between Big Foot (the sheriff) and members of the black community, Dit and Emma's friendship grows into something real. Soon they team up together to save the town barber from an unfair death sentence, and Dit realizes that Emma is not only a girl worth knowing but also his best friend.

This book reminded me so much of a middle grade version of To Kill a Mockingbird. It's set in the South (Alabama even). It deals with the trial and subsequent  sentence of a black man. It examines questions of race and friendship and fairness and loyalty. It definitely didn't pack the same kind of punch as To Kill a Mockingbird, but then, it also ended happier.

I loved the contrast between Emma and Dit. Emma comes from the North (Boston, I think). She is well-bred, has fine manners, reads like crazy, speaks well, is honest, and is very kind. Dit is an average student, has grown up on a farm, is polite with an unsophisticated way of talking, and loves going hunting and fishing. I've read a lot of books with friendships between black and white children (or adults) but never one with quite these same dynamics, and I loved it.

I listened to the audio, which was narrated by Kirby Heyborne. I was somewhat hesitant about him as a narrator, but I ended up liking it quite a lot. He had to do a lot of variations on the Southern accent, and it was well done. I always like it when I can distinguish the voices just by how they sound, and I definitely could with this one.

There were some really great and insightful moments in the story. One of the scenes that happens several times is Big Foot (the sheriff I mentioned earlier) coming into Doc Haley's barbershop. Big Foot brazenly picks up a bottle of hair tonic and walks out without paying for it. Dit becomes so frustrated and annoyed by this, and he asks Doc why he doesn't demand payment. Doc says, "Well, Dit, there are some things in life that are worth making a stink over, but a bottle of hair tonic ain't one of them." Even though Doc eventually changes his mind and decides to take a stand, I still think this is some great advice. I know for me, there are many times when I get angry, but the more I think about, the more I realize the repercussions of lashing out would be far worse than just dealing with or overlooking whatever is bothering me. For Doc, he finally realized there was an underlying issue that was big enough for the repercussions to be worth it.

One of the sub-themes is Dit's desire to become a man (he turns 13 during the course of the story). I loved how choosing kindness and non-violence actions were major factors in letting go of immaturity and becoming a real man. If only more men would value these characteristics.

If you're like me and love good historical fiction, particularly of the middle-grade variety, I would definitely recommend this book.


  1. She's actually local to my area, and I heard her speak at my library last fall. The background behind this book (Dit is modeled after her grandfather) was so interesting. I love hearing those behind the scenes stories! I haven't read this one, but loved Lions of Little Rock. She's a wonderful storyteller.


    1. I totally meant to mention that this book was loosely based on Levine's grandfather, but how awesome that you've actually heard her speak in person!

  2. Loved Lions of Little Rock...but haven't read this one.

    1. I definitely want to read Lions of Little Rock now.

  3. Wasn't this AMAZING? Such a good book (better than Lions of Little Rock).

  4. By the way, I meant to mention that I think Kirby Heybourne is a really excellent narrator. I loved him as the reader of Little Brother.


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