In Harry Crews’s memoir, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, the author sets his authority firmly and quickly. After opening with a second-hand story about his father who died too young for the author to know, Crews writes: “Did what I have set down here as memory actually happen? …I do not know, nor do I any longer care.” This abandonment of exactitude follows throughout the memoir, putting narrator and reader on solid, fair ground. Rightfully so. The stories in this memoir feel hyper-realistic, shorn of the ordinary in the manner of good fictions. It’s the stuff of reverence and romance: Harry Crews pens a love-letter to the time and place he considers home.
As such, the book begins with the idea that home is partly what we tell each other it was. Part One is largely the story of his father, what he’s cobbled together from “stories I have been told about him, stories told to me by my mother, by my brother…and the men and women who knew him while he was alive.” In fact, most of Chapter Two is young Harry with his Uncle Alton being told stories about his daddy by the men who knew him.
I walked away from Part One thinking about how our individual stories mingle and stray from the larger stories we inhabit: the places and people we are a part of, and the power of family legend.
Part One of A Childhood feels like it’s own little book. It does the technical work of introducing the time and place when Crews was born. There is a brief and precise history of sharecroppers in rural Georgia circa 1920’s, and Crews makes the place vivid despite his not being old enough to recall much from those very early years before his daddy died. It becomes that much more apparent by the end of the book just how little things change in a single lifetime for these southern farmers. But, mostly, Part One is a love letter to his daddy whom he never knew and a spotlight and head-nod to all the folks who helped Crews build an image of a man he must very much wish he’d gotten to know.
Part Two is the true memoir of the book, the retelling in a memorable and inimitable voice of the life of a very young boy in a very rough time and place. We’re introduced to his family and several friends, as well as the other father he would also eventually lose.
Crews has the kind of power in his voice that makes you sit up and listen. Part Two opens thus: “It has always seemed to me that I was not so much born into this world as I awakened to it. I remember very distinctly the awakening and the morning it happened. It was my first glimpse of myself, and all that I know now…” I sat straight up when I read that. I felt like I needed to be awake, too.
Much of the memoir is told about the time the narrator was between five- and six-years old. Crews’s childhood is visited by all kinds of hazard: in close succession, he is temporarily and inexplicable crippled and, shortly thereafter, he’s scalded over two-thirds of his young body. There is, too, the impoverished, monotonous life on a farm, the perpetual fear of an alcoholic step-father who would return from a whiskey bender in a whirlwind, and the apocryphal stories from Auntie, the old black woman who helps nurse him.
Throughout the book, Crews reveres the physical world of Bacon County. He describes the farming processes and mind-sets of the characters here in loving, accurate detail. The weather, the rituals, and the voices of his childhood farms and kinfolk are simultaneously legendary and pastoral.
If I had read this book about two years ago, it would probably be one of my all-time favorites. In a memoir, it’s hard to incorporate the mystical and the mysterious, and yet Crews does it here, and to memorable effect. Crews also has such an authentic voice that you can’t stop his accent from running through your head. He cherishes and celebrates that southern dialect, playfully selecting which vernacular to define and which to let you just figure out.
As it is, this memoir has the brevity and the wit to be one of the best memoirs I’ve read throughout this True-Thousand Sixteen experiment. Crews proves that having a life with remarkable and sometimes shitty things happen to you makes for a good book. But he also proves that having a careful eye and, most importantly, a legitimate yearning to capture and share the essence of a place and a people can also make for a powerful and beautiful story. Consider me inspired.