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Check It Out

Courier Article by Pam Locker
Sunday, September 7, 2003

Authors Return to Childhood to Tell Interesting Stories

When I was a girl, my summer vacations consisted of a couple of weeks visiting my grandparents and aunts in and around the tiny northern Indiana town of Wheatfield. The verdant country life was a welcome relief from the dirty urban streets of Gary and Hammond, Indiana.

My grandmothers introduced my sisters and me to wild blueberries, rhubarb pie, sewing, forest sanctuaries, and sleeping on the porch on hot summer nights.

When I returned several years ago for my grandmother's funeral, Wheatfield seemed shabby and backward, and I wonder if it always was.

Childhood experiences remain with us always, and influence our futures for better or worse. In these biographies, four brave souls explore their early memories.

All Over But the Shoutin by Rick Bragg (Pantheon Books, 1997).

Rick Bragg grew up poor in rural Alabama. His father's alcoholism and desertion made his uneducated mother's sacrifice and love his only hope. She labored in the cotton fields and took in people's laundry to eke out a basic living for her three sons.

Bragg escaped the confines of his childhood through journalism and has used his writing talent to testify to the grinding effects of poverty on himself and others.

This book is the 2003 One Book One Community selection. Book discussion groups are scheduled at various library branches, culminating with a free lecture by Mr. Bragg at the Victory on Thursday, October 2 at 7:30 p.m. Bragg, who recently resigned from the "New York Times," is currently working with Palestine, West Virginia fomer prisoner of war Jessica Lynch on her autobiography.

A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel (Doubleday, 2001).

My younger sister Patty is an optimist and I am a pessimist – something that becomes most obvious when we compare our childhoods. We'll remember the same event either affectionately (Patty) or distastefully (me). Rick Bragg and Haven Kimmel likewise view life from two different angles.

Kimmel grew up west of Indianapolis in Mooreland (population 300). Her mother was afraid to leave the house and her father was a gambler, but the two loved each other and stayed together. She may have been poor but she was happy, at least in hindsight.

Kimmel, unlike Bragg, views her childhood through magical glasses that make potentially painful events simply curious and picturesque. This same attitude is evident in her highly regarded and poignant novel "The Solace of Leaving Early." Perhaps her seminary studies at Earlham School of Religion affected her outlook.

What Becomes of the Brokenhearted: a Memoir by E. Lynn Harris (Doubleday, 2003).

Harris has written eight best-selling novels featuring upwardly mobile African American characters. Here he tells how he has survived a triple whammy – being poor, black, and gay – in a life very different from that depicted in his fiction.

Harris grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, in a single-parent family headed by a mother who worked long hours at the local AT&T factory. At the University of Arkansas he became president of his fraternity as well as the school's first black yearbook editor and first male black Razorbacks cheerleader. After graduating with honors in journalism, he mined gold as a salesman for IBM, HP and AT&T for thirteen years before quitting to write and self-publish his first novel.

Despite all his success, Harris, like Bragg, views buying his mother a nice house as one of his greatest accomplishments.

Wildcard Quilt: Taking a Chance on Home by Janisse Ray (Milkweed Editions, 2003).

Seventeen years after leaving behind a family "proud, fervently religious…marred by lunacy, suspicious…doomed to isolation," Ray moved back to her family's southern Georgia farm to reconnect to her roots. Having become a naturalist and environmental activist while living in rural communities in Florida and Montana, Ray wanted to revive the same spirit in her own backyard.

Immerse yourself in longleaf pine forests teeming with life in this beautifully constructed and pieced together narrative of finding oneself. Ray's first book, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood won several prestigious awards and was selected by the Georgia Center of the Book as the book every Georgian should read.

Pam Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.