Periodically for the past three or four months I’ve been working through some of the writing exercises in The Curious Writer by Bruce Ballenger, the textbook I used when teaching freshman composition last fall. I started these exercises in part because I needed something to keep me writing regularly (I had finished the second rewrite of my novel and hadn’t been writing very much), and also because though I don’t know if or when I’ll teach again, I wanted to be much more familiar with the text than I was — I had the thing all of about four days before I went into the classroom the first time I taught it.
One prompt has you write about someone who influenced your reading, and I wrote about my grandmother who was an English teacher. I have one set of book shelves of the vast set that covered one wall of my grandparent’s living room. Every shelf was filled and my grandmother would always give me books to read from those shelves.
The books I inherited from her still have a certain smell — sort of a musky scent of yellowing and sometimes crumbling paper. In 1977, she gave me a copy of Fred Gipson’s Hound-dog Man. It has a hardbound orange cover and inside left she has written the date she received the book — 1949 — along with her name and then to the right she has written my name and 1977 as the year she presented it to me.
If you don’t know Gipson by name, you know, and have probably cried at the end of the movie based off his novel Old Yeller. Gipson’s a Texan, and had a country life, and that country life is captured well in Hound-dog Man, and I’m pretty sure my grandmother wanted me to know what country life was like in Texas in the 1930s or 1940s, before World War II.
When my grandmother gave me the book, I recall my cousins, all the boys at least, going on about coon hunting, and the novel is about a boy, Cotton Kinney, who wants two things more than any others — a hound dog of his own and to go coon hunting. Back then I wanted to go coon hunting with my cousins, not so much to trap and kill a raccoon, but to go out into the woods and romp around. I never did go coon hunting. And I never did get past the first few pages of the book. Maybe I was just too young at nine to really understand Cotton’s longings, or just really didn’t care to know too much about country life, although I had loved Tom Sawyer, which my grandmother had given me around that same time.
But, working through that exercise, thinking about my grandmother, I thought maybe it was time to read the book she had given me 30 years earlier.
It’s a short novel, and would probably be shelved as young adult fiction today, if anyone were to read it, and I couldn’t see it assigned in a classroom because of what would now be overt racism (the N-word appears a few times), though at the same time there is a scene in which a white man defends his giving equal status to a Hispanic man.
In many ways it’s a sentimental story: Cotton never strays far from his family, and comes to appreciate them and love them as a son should love and respect his parents. At the same time, like much young adult fiction, the darker, shade-of-gray world of adults is always around, along with a uneasy sense of threat, up until the last few scenes. It’s a coming of age novel, though one that doesn’t explore budding sexuality, as many coming of age stories do. Cotton, at twelve, is still innocent enough to feel uncomfortable when men and women kiss, and feel bewildered by sexual innuendo.
Much of the adult world he’s exposed to is one that turns violent — even his father at the end of the novel pistolwhips the hog farmer Hog Waller, after Waller has pistolwhipped ne’er-do-well Blackie Scantling for stealing his woman. (Chauvinism is rampant.) And Cotton has to face the ambiguity of lying to save Scantling, an adult action — accept the gray areas in life to stem further violence. It’s an action similar to Huck Finn’s dilemma of either protecting Jim or turning him in as a runaway slave.
It’s these shade-of-gray areas that we all face, and it’s such areas that novels seem to explore best, and what makes them, as John Gardner notes, such powerful sources of “concrete philosophy,” even a young adult novel like Gipson’s in which the cultural surface is to some extent distant from our own, and yet so much like our own.