I have enjoyed McFarland’s novels in the past, and I enjoyed the large portions of this 2004 novel whenever the author followed ten-year-old Ben Rome’s struggle to understand the dysfunctional family he is part of, the life of his black pal Burghardt who belongs to the separate society that exists around him, and the town’s white leaders who say they are acting in behalf of the world he is part of.
But the author also has a political story to tell here, and this kept interrupting the family story, the buddy story, and the story of growing up that so interested me. Indeed, the author writes that he was initially inspired by actual political events, when the leaders of Prince Edward County in Virginia decided in 1959 to close its public schools rather than integrate them, as the Supreme Court had decreed. Instead, the county decided to open whites-only private schools
So while I was interested in Ben’s experiences, as he tried to understand the adult world around him, tried to figure out what these adults, including his own family, were really saying, and tried to understand why the town’s leaders treated the black people as they did, the author kept distracting me with the political events of this small town of Farmville. Yes, these events would eventually come between Ben and his buddy Burghardt, but by then the emphasis was on those political events, rather than on Ben’s efforts to understand what was happening to his relationship with his buddy, and how the world he was so used to was changing.
Ben spends much of his life palling around with Burghardt, as well as working with him harvesting the eggs on his father’s egg farm. He also has a sympathetic sister, Lainie, who is troubled by her pregnancy, a mother who is cowed by an aloof father, an older brother Al, a thief who runs around with dubious pals, and a grandfather, Daddy Cary, both a big wheel in town and a sexual predator, who rules his offspring with an iron hand. Tension builds, as Ben’s family works on behalf of the new private schools, while Ben himself tries to figure out why they want to deprive his best pal of an education.
Each new development in the town’s campaign interrupts Ben’s story, whether it is moving the athletic field’s flood lights, collecting new books, or constructing new classrooms. The novel’s latter portion centers, in fact, not on Ben but on the town’s campaign to close its public schools and create new private schools that cater to white people only. There is even an epilogue that betrays the novel’s focus as well as its origins, since it concentrates on the legal outcome of the public school issue, and only incidentally updates the reader on the future or the fate of the various characters.
How I wish that McFarland had written a novel about a young boy trying to understand the racially mixed society around him. But the author becomes too involved with his inspiration for the novel, the county’s closing of its public schools, in defiance of the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, its illegal strategy to avoid having the black and white races mixed together at school.
Much more interesting, however, is Ben’s struggle to understand the real world. As Ron Charles writes of Ben in his Christian Science Monitor review: “Why, he wonders, do adults insist so strenuously that children tell the truth, when it’s obvious that the key to maturity and power is withholding it?”
But I take issue when Charles further writes: “The result is a novel that provides as much fresh insight into the social history of America as it does into the nature of adolescence, drawing us back with a degree of fascination and horror to the nation’s past and our own.” I take issue because, no, the role of fiction, the role of a novel, is to explore human nature, not to explore the political movements around its characters. The latter belongs as context, yes, but it should not drive the novel, as it does here.
I really enjoy novels that capture an adult’s recollection of a youth in which they seek to understand the world of adults. But that should be the inspiration, not the tool used to recreate a moment in time when society either changed or resisted change. Otherwise, the social change becomes the driving force in the novel, rather than the people in the novel who are causing, resisting, or trying to understand that change.
I would hope that McFarland in future novels gets back to his characters and their changing lives, rather than focusing on the changes in society that affect his characters’ lives. (May, 2017)