T-Backs, T-shirts, COAT, and Suit may be one of E.L. Konigsburg’s lesser read books, but it nevertheless has the hallmarks of a Konigsburg story: precocious preteens, adolescent issues, and a hint of mystery.
To avoid participation in her friends’ hair contract–a three musketeers approach to showing solidarity during summer bad hair days—twelve year old Chloë escapes to Peco, FL (which I can’t locate on Google Maps) to visit her aunt Bernadette. As part of the deal, Chloë promises Nick, her step-father/Bernadette’s younger brother, to “help Bernadette” and to “give the unexpected a chance.”
Chloë fulfills the prior part of Nick’s request by working on the Meals-on-Wheels food truck with Bernadette. And life with Bernadette is full of the unexpected. A former hippie with a mysterious past, Bernadette is private, unsentimental, and treats Chloë like a young adult. She also forages for wild mushrooms, makes healing poultices out of herbs, seems to read Chloë’s thoughts, and never actually swims even though she wades fully dressed into the water. Nevertheless, they grow accustomed to each other, to the point where Chloë describes it as “being one and three-in-one at the same time.” (The third one is Daisy, Bernadette’s eerily obedient dog.)
Then, Chloë meets Tyler, the son of one of Zack’s employees. Although he is the first teenage boy Chloë’s ever taken a walk with, he hasn’t shaved yet or experienced voice change or learned to use proper grammar. Worse, he is smug, acts like a know-it-all, and is only thankful for the people at his ultra-religious summer camp. As payback, Chloë decides to mess with Tyler by tricking him into believing that Bernadette is a witch.
Meanwhile, at work, the other Meals-on-Wheels vendors start wearing T-backs to increase sales. Bernadette refuses. The same people who run Tyler’s summer camp, COAT, or the Citizens Opposing All T-backs, want to rope Bernadette into being the poster girl for their conservative clothing crusade, but she refuses to side with them, too. Unable to get anywhere by protesting against each other, when Tyler divulges his suspicions, both parties come knocking on Bernadette’s door with pitchforks and tar.
Just kidding. The resolution is not perfect, but it’s fairly realistic. There are no last minute plot twists or neatly wrapped endings because Konigsburg knows that, like Chloë, kids are too smart to buy it. Unfortunately, she does oversell Chloë’s intuitiveness at times and uses Chloë’s spot-on insight to state point-blank what other characters are feeling rather than tuck clues into the narrative. Also, the ultra-religious members of COAT are too ridiculous and it’s hard to believe they would mistake a peace sign for an upside-down broken cross. But Konigsburg does cleverly ask readers to think about solidarity, conformity, Savonarola and public opinion, freedom of expression and freedom of choice. And like the way Bernadette treats Chloë, Konigsburg does this without dumbing it down for us.