You can't feed a family of ten or eleven with just love and music, but they sure do make life more bearable.

In Kerry Madden's Maggie Valley Trilogy, Olivia "Livy Two" Weems narrates the ups and downs of her mountain family life.  The first book in the trilogy is Gentle's Holler.  Livy Two's Daddy is a songwriter and traveling salesman, waiting for that big banjo hit.  Mama has two babies (Cyrus and Caroline) sleeping in the dresser drawer and one in the cradle (Appelonia).  Emmett, Livy Two's elder brother, has dreams of running off to work at Ghost Town in the Sky, a new amusement park with an Old West theme.  (The book is set in the 1960s.)  Becksie, Livy Two's older sister, is bossy as can be, and Jitters, one of Livy Two's younger sisters, idolizes her, copying her every move.  Louise, another sister, is a talented visual artist.  And Livy Two herself is a songwriter like her Daddy, composing on the theme of family life, with titles like "Daddy's Roasted Peanuts" and "Grandma's Glass Eye."

Livy Two's three year old sister, Gentle, doesn't seem to see very well, but the whole family is in denial of it.  Until the appearance of the fearsome Grandma Horace, that is.  Grandma Horace comes to Maggie Valley from her home in "Enka-Stinka" (the town of Enka, NC, a town previously known to me only for its top-notch Latin students) and starts setting things to rights.  Soon, Livy Two is teaching Gentle how to read Braille and training Uncle Hazard, the family dog, to work as a seeing eye dog.

I'm afraid to say much about the plot of Louisiana's Song, the second book in the trilogy, because I don't want to spoil the ending of Gentle's Holler.  The two books flow very naturally together, seamlessly telling one story.  At the same time, a reader could easily pick up Louisiana's Song and jump right in without any confusion; the characters develop and shine in both books, and Madden manages to explain the background of the story without making it tedious for those who read the first book.

The greatest strength in these books, and what has made me fall in love with them, is the distinctness and authenticity of each character.  I come from mountain stock, and these people feel as though they could be my relatives.  Daddy reminds me of my grandfather, and I see a lot of myself in Becksie.  Gentle, with her sweetness and beautiful voice, reminds me of my own little sister.  Caroline and Cyrus, the twins, are delightful in their obsessions with fairies and mummies, respectively.  Grandma Horace is the kind of woman you have to fear and respect, a matriarch who, despite her criticisms, clearly loves her family.  Even Uncle Buddy, Grandma Horace's gambler runaway brother, is charming.  I love the Weems family.  I want to spend some time with them, even if it does mean going hungry or being overrun by so many children.

There's something magical and beautiful about the North Carolina mountains, and Kerry Madden captures it in both novels.  This is a place where if you look hard enough you just might see a mountain fairy, where the autumn leaves blaze orange, red, brown and gold, where the smell of honeysuckle can run away with your imagination.  Livy Two and her siblings have a great respect for and love of nature that endears them to me all the more.

The third book in the trilogy, Jessie's Mountain, will be released February 14, 2008, and I can't wait.  I love Livy Two Weems and her whole family, and I look forward to their next adventure.