Richard Gilbert's Reviews > A Childhood: The Biography of a Place

A Childhood by Harry Crews
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May 23, 2016

it was amazing
Read in March, 2012

I loved Harry Crews's ability to write both from his boy's point of view and from his adult's. He grew up in south Georgia in a dirt-poor sharecropper family. Their poverty and ignorance were almost unbelievable. But their world also was full of love and magic, along with what you'd expect—alcoholism and domestic violence. Crews was attuned to the nature that surrounded him and took for granted his parents' fights over his father's drinking, his close relationship with a black tenant family on the farm, and everyone around him being poor, illiterate, and marked or maimed by physical labor, accidents, and animals.

The father in the book is actually Crews's stepfather. After Crews's father died, when he was about two, his brother divorced his wife and married Crews's mother. He was a loving father to Crews and his brother, but he grew increasingly drunk and absent. Life on the farm was incredibly hard, but as I said, magical for young Harry. Then he was briefly and painfully crippled by polio at about age five and then horribly burned when he fell into scalding water at a hog butchering.

During both protracted recoveries he was cared for at night by his best friend's grandmother, an elderly black woman who told him outlandish tales that reflected her magical understanding of the world. Even amidst a rich storytelling culture, in which stories immortalized, explained, and helped people endure an unforgiving and often desperate life, Auntie stood out. Her tales, which emphasized unknowable power and mystery and the importance of protective rituals, didn't provide comprehension of phenomena but a way to live with them. Crews learned well—what a fine storyteller is riveting our attention on his life from ages five to about 10, with a flash forward at the end.

The tone that Crews creates and his sentence rhythms made this an intoxicating read for me, and the story is compelling—you really want to find out what happens. He conveys his experiences through his childhood point of view, and often in vivid scenes, but using the strong storyteller's voice of an older, wiser, sadder man looking back. Though Crews only occasionally employs an overt address—a direct aside in his adult writer's voice—his layering of both childhood and adult perspectives imbues the memoir with depth. We grasp more than he did then, even as we enjoy his childhood innocence and originality.

Despite the brutality and harshness of his world, I could not help but envy aspects of its cohesion, which sets up a reader to be unexpectedly moved by Crews's ultimate plight.
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