Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
Reflective, Nostalgic, Wistful, Contemplative
This book may be set in the country, but it's no lighthearted romp through the backwoods. The whole time, in fact, the narrator is staring into a fire and remembering the good ol' days. You can't get more contemplative than a middle-aged man staring into a fire. Just imagine him stroking his beard, muttering about "back in the day."
Well, maybe not quite. But we do get some pretty nostalgic recollections about his childhood. Check out this passage, right at the end of the book:
I have never been back to the Ozarks. All I have left are my dreams and memories, but if God is willing, some day I'd like to go back—back to those beautiful hills. I'd like to walk again on trails I walked in my boyhood days.
Once again I'd like to face a mountain breeze and smell the wonderful scent of the redbuds, the papaws, and the dogwoods. With my hands I'd like to caress the cool white bark of a sycamore. (8.43)
This vivid little ending captures the book's tone perfectly. It's nostalgic, because he literally says "I'd like to go back." That's nostalgia for you: the sentimental desire to return to an idealized past.
It's wistful, because you never feel like he's actually going to do it. "All I have left are my dreams and memories," he says, as if he's accepted that he's never going back there.
And it's contemplative, because this ending closes an entire story in which Billy contemplates the deeper significance of a certain time of his life: the chain of events that led him from being a dog-sick, barefoot country boy to a city-living office worker.
So. No lighthearted romping in sight.