'Coming of Age' Tales
Loving southern literature as I do, I just realized that the works in that genre that I often have enjoyed most are "coming of age" pieces: e.g., Scout in "To Kill a Mockingbird," Quentin Compson in "Absalom, Absalom!," Charles Mallison in "Intruder in the Dust," Huck and Tom in Mark Twain's books, Jody Baxter in Marjorie Rawlings' "The Yearling," Ben Meecham in Pat Conroy's "The Great Santini," or Truman Capote in "A Christmas Memory" and "The Thanksgiving Visitor."
In fact, I suspect my insatiable appetite for Civil War history can be traced to my having been captured young by those little eye-witnessing brothers in Thomas Nelson Page's "Two Little Confederates," one of the first books I recall.
This self-revelation of my reveling in southern growing-up stories dawned upon me in mid-January while, still relishing recent childhood nostalgia linking Christmas gifts and pleasure reading, I finished two new books. One is a novel, "A Sound Like Thunder" (Ballentine Books, 2006, 277 pp.), by Sonny Brewer. The other is autobiographical, "Scorekeeping: Essays from Home" (University of South Carolina Press, 2006, 121 pp.), by Bob Cowser, Jr.
"A Sound Like Thunder" is Brewer's second novel, and like the first, it is set in picturesque Fairhope, Ala. the lovely retirement town on the Gulf Coast that has a rich history of fostering the arts and having once been a utopian retreat for semi-socialists.
In this short work, Brewer's command of language almost overshadows the story he is telling. It is a saga set in December 1941 of a 16-year-old boy coming to grips with the approaching World War II, his alcoholic but highly literate sea captain father and the father's hatred for a local German who may, or may not, be having an affair with the boy's mother.
Brewer, who owns a fine bookstore in addition to being a writer, proves himself not only a master storyteller but probably also a fine sailor, for his descriptions of sailing on the bay teem with nautical terms that only a seasoned sailor could use. The boy, Rove MacNee, is aptly named, for the plot involves his leaving home (roving) to live on a boat that he has salvaged and renovated, and on which he probably will soon sail to join the navy.
His personal home problems are counter-balanced by the sweetness of love for Anna Pearl Anderson, daughter of the principal of Fairhope's Organic School (a love that he compares in his "winter of '41" with that of the young man in book and movie, "Summer of '42"), and by his newfound friendship with an eccentric artist while both are contemplating a dying tern on the shore.
His refurbished but unnamed craft he christens the Sea Bird. It is both sanctuary and escape vessel for the boy. The boy evolves in his self-understanding and his story unfolds sensitively, until the dramatic climax of the final chapter, too important to the story to reveal here. Read the book.
"Scorekeeping" is not fiction, but assorted essays of self-realization and personal wrestling by Bob Cowser Jr., who looks back on his childhood as a son of two English professors in the tiny university town of Martin, in West Tennessee. The years upon which he reflects (the late 1970s and early 1980s) overlap with years we spent there when I was chancellor of the University of Tennessee campus where Cowser's father was a professor of English and his mother an adjunct.
His even-tempered father (from Texas) and dislocated mother (from Cleveland) are crucial elements of his recollections, and Martin seems to be some sort of midway neutral place between their heritages and home places. Cowser happened to live in Martin -- tagged by Esquire Magazine in 1970 as "one of nine happy towns in America" -- when tragedies spiced up the red clay routines of that pastoral and sleepy place.
His brother's best friend committed suicide. His own childhood friend was implicated in the murder of a young girl. As I recall, the suicide occurred while we were living there, and the murder happened soon afterward. And, as if that were not enough to traumatize the young Cowser for life, he discovered later on that his favorite uncle, a bachelor in Texas whose estate helped get Bob and his siblings to prestige private colleges , had died of AIDS.
Laced in with those landmark revelations were the more common childhood crises of not excelling at baseball, or being overweight, and of being bored with school, and of going through an early divorce. These are not happy memories, but they are engaging stories, for Cowser has worked so hard at his craft (he has a doctorate in creative writing from Nebraska and teaches that subject at St. Lawrence University) that his prose draws a reader in like a spider with a fetching web.
One rejoices as he confronts the demons of his past and exorcizes them, leaving him free at last to write the Great American Novel he seems destined to write. He certainly has the agility with language to do just that.
Larry McGehee, professor-emeritus at Wofford College, may be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.
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