I have to admit that it if wasn't for book club the month I probably never would have picked up this book. This isn't normally the type of book I usually read. I wasn't expecting to love it (or even like it all that much), but love it I did and it consumed my thoughts for the last couple of weeks. Even when I wasn't reading it, I would find myself constantly thinking about the characters as I went through my day. This is the kind of book that stays with you long after you turn the last page. It was the tenth book in the author's Two Medicine Country series (none of which I have read), but the author provided enough background that wasn't lost starting towards the end of the series.
The Bartender's Tale is the story of a bartender and his son and the small town image where days went by a little bit slower and everything seemed a just a little less complicated. The narrator is an older man named Rusty taking place sometime in the present. He takes us back to the year of 1960 when he was twelve years old living with his father, Tom, as he ran Medicine Lodge, a small-town bar in Montana's Two Medicine Country. Rusty's mother took off when he was a baby and, after spending his first six years with relatives in Arizona, he came to live with his father. They live a simple life of having tomato soup for breakfast and fishing on Sundays. Tom runs the bar while Rusty spends his time in the backroom reading and making paper airplane models. But, this summer things are about to get a little more interesting. The diner down the street gets new owners and their daughter, Zoey, becomes Rusty's new "partner in crime." And then Proxy, a dance from Tom's past, shows up with her daughter Frances and everything Rusty thought he knew about his past is about to change.
This book was wonderful in every possible way. I loved the description of small-town life in the 1930s. The imagery and mood was spot-on and the author was able to capture it perfectly. I loved the relationships between the characters. Specifically between Rusty and his father, but also between Rusty and Zoey. Rusty and Tom had such a unique relationship since there was not mother-figure involved. Tom's love and concern for his son comes though on every page, even though he didn't always know how to handle a situation. Even though Rusty was young, Tom confided in him and I could feel their mutual respect for one another. They grew up with only each other and figuring things out as the came and as a team. The dialogue was quirky and real and the audio version made this even more so. I also loved the portal of the Rusty's age. Looking back, twelve seems so young, but it's such as unique age where you feel like you own the world and are, at the same time, starting to see the world differently for the first time. I so enjoyed Rusty's twelve-year-old perspective on the storyline, even though he was telling the story as an adult.
The ending wasn't sad, but I found myself bawling after it was over. I can only count on my hand the number of books that have made me cry. It was a perfect way to end the story, but I grew to love these characters so much and wanted nothing more than to keep reading about their lives and dreams and interactions with each other. I was sad to learn that the author had pasted away in April of last year, but I will definitely be reading more of his books in the future - especially the ten other Two Medicine Country novels.