Lucky Strikes

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
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Crazy schemes, sweetness in funny, poignant Depression tale.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

There's a lot of period detail about the Depression-era South, as well as references to plays and literature. The character Hiram has worked as an actor, and it's the fact that he knows Shakespeare that first draws Amelia -- who immediately recognizes a quote from Shelley as not being Shakespeare. Along with the kids, readers will learn quite a bit about business and customer relations from Hiram's transformation of the gas station.

Positive Messages

Strong messages about the bonds of family, the ones you're born to and the ones you create. Building community with your neighbors and pitching in in times of need are also seen as important and rewarding -- sometimes unexpectedly so. Also big themes: courage, determination, creative thinking, and refusing to give up, even when things are overwhelmingly against you.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Starting with the fact of having to survive -- and keep the family business afloat -- on their own, the kids do plenty of hair-raising things (such as burying their mom in the woods so as not to alert the authorities that they're on their own) and face some terrifying situations. Fourteen-year-old Melia shows a lot of courage and resolve in taking care of her family, and when she does the wrong thing -- as when she suggests to a boy who likes her that he should spy on his uncle, the villain -- she's quick to realize it. Her younger siblings, wise beyond their years but also kids, use their particular talents to help out. "Daddy Hiram," onetime actor, hobo, and occasional drunk, rises magnificently, if unconventionally, to the responsibilities of sudden fatherhood.


The story starts with the death of the kids' mother (after a long illness) and their decision to bury her in the woods so the authorities don't put the kids in foster care and split them up; the threat of being split up looms terrifyingly over the story. The villain uses vandalism and arson to intimidate the kids. Two adult characters die from gunshots. An adult character tries to rape a teen. A character who's facing a painful death commits suicide with a drug overdose.


Two teen characters kiss briefly on several occasions. Two adult characters have a secret romance that eventually results in a child. The kids' late mother raised them with no dad in the picture (no one knows who Melia's biological father is; her siblings' father is in prison). Someone paints "SLUT" on the gas station, upsetting the kids, but despite a lot of local innuendo, none of the alleged encounters and affairs ever happened. Several marriages in the community aren't happy; one man in particular treats his wife with disrespect and tries to force other women to have sex with him. Discussing a local woman whose husband deserted her years ago, 9-year-old Janey says, "Now, some say she kilt him, but there's others say they seen him shacking up with some hotsy-totsy in Harrisonburg. Which makes him a two-timer and maybe even a bigamist."


Both kids and adults use lots of profane and crude language, including "s--t," "damn," "goddamn," "piss," "slut,"  "ass," "a--hole," and "Jesus!"


Many characters smoke Lucky Strikes cigarettes. Standard Oil is important to the story. A character refers to the luxurious Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. Most other real-life brands, products, and celebrities mentioned here are long gone, including Studebaker, Photoplay, and Clark Gable (who also plays a minor role in the tale).

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Liquor and tobacco are part of the landscape here, and lots of kids and adults smoke cigarettes. A drunken fortune-teller proves a popular attraction. Truck drivers and locals sometimes pay their bills in moonshine or give liquor as gifts. An adult character gets drunk on moonshine, and Melia recalls how she gave some to her dying mom when her pain was unbearable. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Lucky Strikes, set in the Depression-era hill country of Virginia, is a fast-moving, suspenseful, poignant, hilarious, and cheer-worthy tale of three orphaned kids trying to keep the family business afloat and themselves out of the foster care system. Crude language, liquor, and tobacco are part of the scenery (Lucky Strikes was a popular cigarette brand; its sales were discontinued in the United States in 2006). And dicey situations, such as the drunken fortune-teller recruited to save the day, are plentiful. The villain is a predatory soul who'll stop at nothing to get what he wants, whether it's the family business or unwilling women. The story includes arson, assault, vandalism, murder, and suicide, as well as an attempted rape. Despite all the dark forces, though, the story (and narrator, 14-year-old Melia) retain a strong moral compass, with satisfying, heartstring-tugging messages about grit, determination, family, and community.

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What's the story?

LUCKY STRIKES take place in Depression-era Virginia, where Bertha's Oasis is the last independent Standard Oil station in the region. Then Bertha Hoyle, its feisty, red-headed owner, dies, leaving her three kids -- 14-year-old Amelia, 11-year-old Earle, and 9-year-old Janey -- on their own. Melia, as she's known, has actually been running things for months and is a skilled mechanic. But she also knows that as soon as the authorities find out her mom's gone, the foster care system will take them all away and split them up. That's not the only problem, either: The rich man who owns all the other Standard stations wants to add Bertha's Oasis to his empire and doesn't care what he has to do in the process. Just when things couldn't look worse, a disheveled hobo reeking of alcohol falls off a truck in front of the station. Melia gets an idea and, a few Lucky Strikes later, they have a fateful and highly unlikely deal.

Is it any good?

Danger, death, darkness, and drink are no strangers to Louis Bayard's YA debut, but at its heart it's a cheer-worthy, feel-good tale about family, determination, community, and defying stereotypes. Lucky Strikes is set in rural Virginia in 1934, and tobacco (including the brand the title is taken from), liquor, and crude language are plentiful. But 14-year-old Melia -- tough on the outside, often terrified inside, but never one to let it get the better of her because the stakes are too high -- is hard to resist.  So is her narrative voice, as here when she's explaining her plan to Hiram:

"'Point is,' I said, 'I ain't old enough to be in charge of them two children. Which is the ... stupidest thing I ever heard, but that's the state of Virginia for you. So what I'm proposing is -- well, it's a business arrangement, that's all. Say some folks from the county come out here and they say, Whoa now, where be the father to these here children? Why, all you got to do is step up and say, That's me. I am the feller in question. Then these selfsame folks, they go away and leave us alone. It's a romp in the clover when you come right down to it.'

"'Oh, sure,' he said."

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the view of the Great Depression in Lucky Strikes. How is life different today? How are things the same? Were you surprised at kids being regular smokers in the story?

  • What's the appeal of historical fiction? What are some of your favorite stories about other eras in books or movies?

  • If you suddenly had to take care of your family by yourself, how would you cope? Whom could you count on for help? What would be the hardest thing to deal with?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love coming-of-age stories and historical fiction

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