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Red Sky at Morning
One of my favorite books: Red Sky at Morning
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May 20, 2011 09:07AM
I traveled extensively for several decades and, in that pre-Kindle era I liberally stocked my suitcase with books to pass the time on airplanes and in hotels. Most of the paperbacks stayed in the seat-back compartments; fluff that left no impact after the last page was turned. But each year – and especially in the summer – a few books were taken from my library at home. These were (and still are) novels to be savored, preferably in the solitude of a five- or six-hour flight.
One of those books is Richard Bradford’s ‘Red Sky at Morning’ and, if I had to point to just one book that has inspired me as a writer, this would be the one. First published in 1968, my dog-eared paperback copy was printed in April 1969. (It has been augmented by a treasured first edition which most decidedly does not travel.)
Red Sky is a coming-of-age story. It is also what screenwriters like to call a ‘fish-out-of-water’ story. Most of all, it is beautifully written and tells a story with humor, compassion and a willingness to dive unblinkingly into what makes us human.
The story unfolds over the course of a year, beginning in Mobile, Alabama, in August 1944. Seventeen-year-old Joshua Arnold is about to get yanked out of his comfortable nest because his father, a shipyard owner, has badgered the War Department into allowing him to enlist. Josh and his mother are to spend the duration of the war at their summer home in a small town in the mountains of northern New Mexico. There, Josh’s world is upended: he is an ‘Anglo’ where the majority is ‘Natives’ – descendents of the Spanish settlers who populated the region decades before Jamestown – or ‘Indians’. Josh enters his senior year of high school not at the posh private school he attended in Mobile, but at the DeCrispin School where the notion of education includes creeping up under the piano to get a look at the music teacher’s red lace panties. Josh makes friends, but his mother tires of bridge at the local hotel and begins drinking down the Sherry collection in the basement. She also invites to stay with them the Mobile friends whom the exile to New Mexico was intended to keep away.
All of this is narrated by Josh with bewilderment, but with laugh-out-loud funny lines on every page. A parade of memorable characters move through the story. There is Maximiliano ‘Chango’ Lopez. Josh makes the mistake of crossing Chango on the first day of school – he stares at Chango’s sister’s amply filled-out blouse – and thus begins months of torment. Amadeo and Excilda Montoya are the Arnold’s cook and handyman. They are also the parents of eleven children including one who pens a 40-page ‘book report’ on Don Quixote. And there is Jimbob Buel, a permanent houseguest from Mobile, of whom Josh observes that, ‘if Sherman’s artillery had been just a little sharper, he might have put an end to the entire line of useless Buels’.
Richard Bradford died in 2002. His obituary notes that, like his protagonist in Red Sky at Morning, Bradford grew up in the South and moved to New Mexico with his family as a teenager. On the dust jacket of the book, Bradford says the story is not autobiographical. But the people almost certainly are drawn from those Bradford encountered in his youth.
What I learned from Red Sky is that humor leavens truth and that richly drawn characters are essential to good story telling. Remarkably, Red Sky is still in print. It deserves to be.
Jul 20, 2011 05:15PM
Nice review! You captured the strengths of this book. However, when I started to re-read it (for the 3rd time--something I have NEVER done before), I found the story dated and the characters kind of stereotypical. So, I took it off my top-ten list. Still, it IS full of very funny scenes. I recommend it.
Oct 11, 2011 04:30AM
Enjoyed this book very much.
Feb 14, 2013 03:56PM
I remember rereading this one many times when I was younger, and it's one of those books that I would like to reread again to see how well it holds up - which is, of course, always a tricky proposition.
Sep 18, 2013 03:16PM
Can you explain to me the plot summary? I'm reading this book for an English class and I don't understand the plot summary at all. Please help.
Sep 19, 2013 09:23AM
This book is in my top three favorites. I have a copy, but haven't re-read it in a long time. I believe there was a movie made, same title, I don't know when. I think Ron Howard was in it, and may have played the part of Josh.
Jan 26, 2015 01:50PM
Olivia, the movie was one of the worst butcherings of a book ever perpetrated by Hollywood. In a horribly misguided effort to make the film more 'relevant', the character of Steenie was turned into a half-Anglo-half-Indian (played excruciatingly poorly by Desi Arnaz, Jr.). Thomas played Josh well, Catherine Burns did well as Marcia and Claire Bloom was memorable as Josh's mom. But the film completely missed the soul of the book. Nice to meet another 'Red Sky' aficionado!
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