Young adult novel brings Asheville’s street-music scene to life 

SOUND OF MUSIC: Buskers, bullies, a menacing pet pig and various homages to the characters and colorful businesses that populate the Asheville downtown area show up in local author Jennie Liu's latest young adult novel. Photo courtesy of Lui

by Jason Chen 

Local author Jennie Liu is used to writing works with urgent social messages.

“I like to write about people at the margins,” says Liu. “My first two books are about social issues in China. They’re about the fallout of the one-child policy and how it’s affected people over there.”

But with her latest young adult novel, Enly and the Buskin’ Blues, Liu will likely surprise loyal readers. The story abounds with buskers, bullies, a menacing pet pig and various homages to the characters and colorful businesses that populate downtown Asheville.

Liu will celebrate its Tuesday, Feb. 7, release with a 6 p.m. book launch party at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe. She says she hopes readers will laugh while they read her latest publication, though she still intends to leave them contemplating some of the deeper issues local residents face in the Land of the Sky.

Altamont 2.0

Liu credits her son, Eliot Boniske, with inspiring her new approach to storytelling. “I used to bring my kid books from the library, and I always thought they were great. They were always about kids in hardship overcoming some major thing, and he was like, ‘Oh, you always bring home these sad stories where the kid’s struggling with something awful. Why don’t you write something like Diary of the Wimpy Kid?’”

Honoring the spirit of her son’s request, Enly and the Buskin’ Blues tells the story of Enly Wu Lewis, a half-Chinese American boy who lives in a fictionalized version of Asheville called Altamont — a nod to the name Thomas Wolfe assigned to the Asheville-inspired, fictional town in his 1929 novel, Look Homeward, Angel. Aspiring to attend an expensive music camp in Atlanta, Enly purchases a melodica, a hand-held free-reed instrument, and begins busking to earn the $2,800 tuition fee.

Although not biographical, many of the story’s details were influenced by her son’s experiences.

“My kid’s Spanish teacher had brought her accordion to school to play for the kids. [Eliot] came home and said, ‘I want to use my Chinese New Year money to buy an accordion to busk downtown.’ And I just thought that it was great … for him to busk and start earning some money for college.”

Later, her son’s piano teacher, Chuck Lichtenberger, introduced Boniske to the melodica. In her book’s author notes, Liu writes that the minute this musical instrument was brought into the mix, “My story radar clicked on.”

The plot thickens

Liu’s novel promises an exciting plot for readers looking for a page turner. While busking one day, Enly is tipped with a lottery ticket that turns out to be a $3,000 winner. However, when two scheming high schoolers nab the ticket, Enly and his older brother, Spencer, must scheme a heistlike plan to get it back.

But what might delight readers most is Liu’s meticulous reimagining of her beloved mountain town. Readers familiar with the city will recognize countless nods to its most recognizable businesses and historical buildings. Finkelstein’s becomes Lichtenberger’s pawn shop; Vanderbilt Apartments turns into Olmstead Apartments; Asheville Discount Pharmacy is Mountain Discount Pharmacy; and Mellow Mushroom becomes “the pizza place across on O. Henry Avenue.”

Asheville’s downtown geography is not the only thing that Liu captures. At its heart, Enly and the Buskin’ Blues honors the city’s spirit, particularly its citizens’ passion for music. Buskers line the streets of Altamont. At one point in the book, a character resembling Abby Roach, aka Abby the Spoon Lady, makes an appearance “clacking and stomping away, crooning an old-time song.”

Enly also finds a great deal of support along the way. In one example, a longtime Altamont street musician encourages the story’s young protagonist to work on his visual presentation. In another, friends add a couple of dollars into his tip jar to help spark additional support.

Heavier notes

Yet, despite the fun nature of Liu’s latest work, she remains a writer committed to tackling weighty topics and promoting social change.

Within the pages of Enly and the Buskin’ Blues, the author calls attention to the rising cost of living in Asheville and the town’s changing nature as a booming tourist destination. Enly’s mother, the story’s protagonist notes, “had to work so much because our little mountain town, Altamont, had gotten ridiculously expensive now that it’d been found out.”

The challenges her characters face are ones that many in Asheville will have experienced firsthand. Amid a conversation about her latest book, Liu recounts a recent exchange she had with a former neighbor, who told the writer that she and her family had been given a 30-day notice following a spike in rent.

“That’s just been on my mind,” the authors say, “the whole gentrification thing.” And it is apparent in her latest work, which, despite its lighthearted narrative, doesn’t shy away from heavier notes.

WHAT: Jennie Liu launches Enly and the Buksin’ Blues
WHEN: Tuesday, Feb. 7, 6 p.m. Free
WHERE: Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe, 55 Haywood St.


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One thought on “Young adult novel brings Asheville’s street-music scene to life 

  1. blueridgeguvnor

    My favorite part is when Enly gets a a citation from APD for noise ordinance violation, but still successfully scores some fentanyl laced heroin and ends up in Mission wherein they decide her care isn’t profitable enough. The closing shot of her sleeping under bridge on Lexington is so heart warming ! Just captures AVL so well brava !!

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