Thursday, February 14, 2008

Bone by Bone by Bone by Tony Johnston

I have had a hard time coming up with an opening line for this review. Usually these lines come to me in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep. However, despite the abundance of sleepless nights, no witty/poignant/shocking opening line has surfaced. I think that it is because this story is so rich and evokes so many reactions and questions that it is hard to settle on one angle. Set in small town Tennessee during the 1950s Jim Crow era*, this is the tale of a truly beautiful friendship between two boys of the same age but different skin colors. It’s a story that is part “Long Way from Chicago”, full of colorful stories of the goings on of the town's inhabitants, and part “To Kill a Mockingbird”, riddled with injustice, hate, and a painful loss of innocence.

Both boys, Malcolm who is black and David who is white, are idealistic and uncompromising in their love for one another. David in particular takes a long time to fully understand the unmaleable nature of the society he lives in and the mine field that he creates for himself and his best friend. David doesn’t hesitate to insist that Malcolm try out for the local all-white little league baseball team; it is a hard learning curve. "What's wrong?" David asks the crestfallen Malcolm. "Coach wouldn't let me try out. Told me, 'Git off this field, nigger.'" Malcolm had to learn early the realities that David can't accept, "Niggers don't get to do what white boys can," he said. "you knew that." "I didn't! Honest!" shouted David.

David's father barely tolerates his son playing with Malcolm but knows he cannot stop him; however, he instutes a "No-Nigger" rule and swares that he will kill Malcolm if he as much sets foot on their front porch, "He formed his words with such calm, I knew he'd planned this, cold as ice". When Malcolm is attacked by a group of men, David's father is among the crowd.

David's father can be cruel and calculating one minute and loving and understanding the next. You hate him, then think he’s charming all in the same paragraph. He is extremely complex and well written and then sometimes not quite believable. Needless to say, he’s based on a true person. The author, Tony Johnston, addresses the reader before the story begins:

Though some people may be offended by it, I do not apologize for the raw language used in this book. It is my father's language and reflects his way of thinking that has troubled me my whole life.
In a River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean wrote that he was "haunted by waters.' I am haunted by my father.

David's father will not have a person of color in his house but was raised by a black mammy, whom he adores. This is the one part of the story that I had a hard time with. Tinney, the mammy, arrives at David's front door and is brought in and even embraced by his father. I know that racism is never a simple thing. Blacks and whites grow up in the South together in small communitites and their relationships are often compex and puzzling, but the intense hatred for blacks the father expresses at other times is so venomous this one exception stands out. There are even veiled hints throughout the book that the father may actually be involved in the Klan.

This book would still be a good read, but a harder one, without the comic relief. The matriarch of the family, Gold Ma is no Grandma Dowdel; however, the scene where she insists on being carried in her bed to a wake is hilarious. There's also the mysterious Civil War arm that David and Malcolm hunt for and the wedding with The Great Toaster Shoot. In the end though, this novel is about choice. Choose to stay and accept the status quo or choose to leave in the hope that there is a better way. David, being white, has that choice. Malcolm does not.

I leave you with the dedication to the book which sums up the complexity of the issue:

For Daddy.
Some wounds never heal.*
Interesting aside: Tony Johnston is the author of many children's books including The Quilt Story, The Barn Owls, and The Worm Family.


Cloudscome said...

I thought about reading this book but then put it back on the shelf because it scared me too much. Your review reminds me why I don't think I could bear to read it. You've done a great job here and I truly hope others have the courage to read the book.

Mme T said...

Yes, this was a tough one, but Johnston does a really great job of balancing the painful with the hopeful. I, too, hope it gets a wider readership. It would be fascinating to teach to 6-8 graders