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The Great Santini
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Group Reads: Moderator's Choice > Moderator's Choice, June 2017: The Great Santini, by Pat Conroy

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message 1: by Tom, "Big Daddy" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tom Mathews | 2466 comments Mod
I have wanted to read this novel ever since I first saw the great movie starring Robert Duvall as Lt. Col. Bull Meechum. It's a classic tale of a boy's passage into manhood and of his difficult, changing relationship with his father. It’s also the story of the strong, quiet woman whose love for both her Marine pilot husband and her gentle son brings her pain, as well as understanding and strength to them. Please join me in reading and discussing The Great Santini.




message 2: by Kim (new) - added it

Kim Kaso | 590 comments This is like reading about my brother, a Naval Academy grad. The one-on-one relationship occurred with his daughter, who graduated from the Naval Academy also, and became an engineer on a Navy combatant. My daughter honed her basketball skills playing against enlisted Navy & Marines at lunchtime on Alameda air base before it closed, and took many an elbow and learned not to cry, which I learned from same brother, other brother, and Dad while running trap lines, and being used as a hockey puck which they called teaching me to skate. Playing on a girl's basketball team was easy after that for both of us.


message 3: by Kim (new) - added it

Kim Kaso | 590 comments My daughter got to the point her dad was a little wary of her elbows when they went up for rebounds when playing one-on-one in our driveway, but he is a gentleman. ;-)


Book Concierge (tessabookconcierge) | 369 comments I also wanted to read it ever since seeing the movie ... with my BFF who was an Army brat (her father was a Green Beret). I finally read it in Dec 2013. It was a 4-star read for me.

LINK to my review


message 5: by Tom, "Big Daddy" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tom Mathews | 2466 comments Mod
I read the first chapter late last night and am hooked. The scene in the hotel bar was a classic. Bull Meecham is a total ass but he is a larger-than-life total ass. He is a no-middle-ground character and I suspect that everyone is going to love or hate him unreservedly.


message 6: by Diane, "Miss Scarlett" (new)

Diane Barnes | 3824 comments Mod
Tom, the town of Beaufort where this novel is set is about 1 1/2 hours from me, and I have been many times. I went to the Officer's Club at the Marine Corp Air Base last October for a reading and book signing for Ron Rash, who was a protege of Pat Conroy early in his career. The bar there is called "The Great Santini Room" and Don Conroy, Pat's father on whom this character is based, is a revered figure there. His grave in the National Cemetery bears the inscription "The Great Santini" as well. Don Conroy embraced the character completely after his initial dissatisfaction with the book, and wholey approved of his portrayal by Robert Duval.
Keep in mind while you are reading that Pat Conroy claims he had to tone down his father's beatings and disciplinary measures, because if he told the whole truth no one would believe it and he wouldn't have been able to get it published. Be that as it may, Santini is a classic, unforgettable character.


message 7: by Howard (last edited May 30, 2017 02:47PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Howard | 377 comments Tom wrote: "I read the first chapter late last night and am hooked. The scene in the hotel bar was a classic. Bull Meecham is a total ass but he is a larger-than-life total ass. He is a no-middle-ground charac..."

If he had been my father, I might have loved him, but I would not have liked him.


John (jwarner6comcastnet) | 137 comments Diane wrote: "Tom, the town of Beaufort where this novel is set is about 1 1/2 hours from me, and I have been many times. I went to the Officer's Club at the Marine Corp Air Base last October for a reading and b..."

I attended the South Carolina Book Festival when Pat Conroy and most of his siblings attended. All favored the Great Santini as displayed in the book in more glowing terms than their father.


message 9: by Lawyer, Moderator Emeritus "Lawyer Stevens" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lawyer (goodreadscommm_sullivan) | 2699 comments Mod
I considerThe Great Santini most memorable book, topped only by The Prince of Tides. In later years Conroy and his father resolved many of the issues that had separated them in earlier years. Donald Conroy figures prominently in My Losing Season when Conroy played basketball for the Citadel. As a companion read or follow up read I highly recommend Conroy's The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son. Incredibly moving. I have returned to this novel on multiple occasions. I found it worth every read. And by all means catch the Orion release from 1972 with Robert Duval as the perfect Bull Meacham. Happy reading to those discovering this magnificent novel for the first time. Great pick, Tom.


B. R. Reed (mtmoon) | 112 comments This was the first book I read this yr and I enjoyed it very much. As a former marine officer I related to the story. I first read it a couple of yrs after it was published, many moons ago. Many of you are going to be much offended by some of the antics of the title character. Some of his conduct was simply inexcusable. However, I would like to ask you one question as you read the book. Is the colonel not a man you'd want on your side in a combat situation? I know I could count on him for the close airport he would provide. I hope you all enjoy the book. Ooh Rah!!


message 11: by Tom, "Big Daddy" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tom Mathews | 2466 comments Mod
B. R. wrote: "I would like to ask you one question as you read the book. Is the colonel not a man you'd want on your side in a combat situation?.."

I addressed this question in my review of American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History when I wrote
In my younger days I served as a Navy corpsman assigned to a Marine Corps unit. I found the Marines I served with different from anyone else I had ever known. Their view of the world was unlike mine in almost every way. They were more likely to see things in black and white. They were often rude, crude and socially unacceptable. Their interest in understanding the enemy extended only to learning how best to kill them. Very few of them were any good at literary discussions. Despite that, they took their duties very seriously. Becoming Marines was the crowning achievement of their lives. They were very dedicated and extremely loyal. If I ever found myself in trouble, there is nobody on earth that I would rather have watching my back.

Bottom line: Bull Meecham was a warrior in every sense of the word and it is of people like him that Winston Churchill said “We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.”


message 12: by Diane, "Miss Scarlett" (new)

Diane Barnes | 3824 comments Mod
Good point, Tom. I've read that Churchill quote before and it definitely makes me think. There is a role for everyone in the world, and while I may not want to be around certain people because I don't fit into their culture, that doesn't mean I can't appreciate and value their contributions. I think the Navy Seals and their like are the closest things we have today to men with superpowers.


message 13: by Howard (last edited Jun 05, 2017 06:15PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Howard | 377 comments Bull Meecham the warrior I can admire, but I detest Bull Meecham the father.


message 14: by Tom, "Big Daddy" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tom Mathews | 2466 comments Mod
Howard wrote: "Bull Meecham the warrior I can admire, but I detest Bull Meecham the father."

Agreed. His referring to his own daughters as split-tails really burned him for me. I'm still loving the book, though.


message 15: by Diane, "Miss Scarlett" (new)

Diane Barnes | 3824 comments Mod
I read an interview with Pat Conroy once, and when questioned about using his family as material and the success is brought him, he replied that he would give up all the fame and money just to have had a happy childhood.


Howard | 377 comments Diane wrote: "I read an interview with Pat Conroy once, and when questioned about using his family as material and the success is brought him, he replied that he would give up all the fame and money just to have..."

Tom and Diane:

I have read the book twice and watched the movie at least twice, maybe three times, and I gave the book 5 stars, so I obviously like it, too. But it is sort of like watching a train wreck about to happen and being powerless to stop it.


message 17: by Tom, "Big Daddy" (last edited Jun 09, 2017 12:03PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tom Mathews | 2466 comments Mod
sometimes Conroy adds comments where he is so clearly speaking with his own voice that it almost pulls me right out of the story.
Bull Meecham had met Ogden Loring at a PTA meeting and had come home with a single remark: “Any man who teaches a girls’ course like English is bound to be a pansy.” But Ben had been coming to a gradual and reluctant realization that Ogden Loring was the best teacher he had ever had.



message 18: by Tom, "Big Daddy" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tom Mathews | 2466 comments Mod
After reading the above chapter (22) about English teacher Ogden Loring I was even more convinced that he was based on an actual person so I pulled out my Google and found the following excellent article which identifies him as Gene Norris, Conroy’s high school English teacher at Beaufort High. He also is mentioned in Beach Music and The Water is Wide: A Memoir.
Real people inspired characters in Conroy’s books
I also found the FindaGrave site for Conroy's father, Donald Conroy.

As mentioned in previous posts, his grave includes the name "Great Santini"



Howard | 377 comments Tom wrote: "sometimes Conroy adds comments where he is so clearly speaking with his own voice that it almost pulls me right out of the story.

Bull Meecham had met Ogden Loring at a PTA meeting and had com..."


Very interesting, Tom. Thanks for this information.


message 20: by Kim (new) - added it

Kim Kaso | 590 comments I have the Death of Santini to read after I reread The Great Santini.


message 21: by Tom, "Big Daddy" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tom Mathews | 2466 comments Mod
Kim wrote: "I have the Death of Santini to read after I reread The Great Santini."

Me too. I have it on audio and will start it as soon as I finish listening to Age of Myth.


message 22: by Diane, "Miss Scarlett" (new)

Diane Barnes | 3824 comments Mod
I don't think it's any secret that Pat Conroy's books are thinly veiled autobiographical novels. He has stated before that when people piss him off, even strangers who are rude to him, he uses their names or characters as bad people in future books. He certainly knew how to hold a grudge, as anyone who reads "The Death of Santini" will quickly see.


message 23: by David (last edited Jun 11, 2017 08:49AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

David Black | 22 comments Howard wrote: "Bull Meecham the warrior I can admire, but I detest Bull Meecham the father."

You just summed up the book in a single sentence, IMHO! I think that is exactly the point that Conroy is making--a man may be a great warrior, but a lousy father. It's about the dissonance between one's public and family faces.

We tend to ascribe competency in all areas to people who display it in some realms. (That's made trouble for me once or twice). Unfortunately, that isn't always the case.

The other part that interests me is wondering if Conroy is supposing that Bull Meecham would have been a better father if he had NOT been a warrior. It's tough to imagine him in any other profession, but what would he have been like if he'd sold insurance, for example?


Howard | 377 comments It's tough to imagine him in any other profession, but what would he have been like if he'd sold insurance, for example?

Great observation, David. I have to confess that that thought had never crossed my mind. What would he have been like if he had chosen a different profession? (Jim Anderson sold insurance on "Father Knows Best," didn't he? Of course, the title of the show was somewhat ironic because Father didn't always know best, but, on the other hand, by the end of the episode he always admitted his errors, and he was a terrific father.)

But you answered your own question, didn't you? Bull Meecham couldn't have sold insurance. He was what he was.


message 25: by Diane, "Miss Scarlett" (new)

Diane Barnes | 3824 comments Mod
I think it takes a certain type of person to want to excel in the military, then that personality type is reinforced by his surroundings. Everyone plays the "what if" game, especially as we age, but the truth is we made our decisions based on the person we were at the time. Interestly enough, Don Conroy's grandchildren have described him as a pussycat in his dealings with them.


message 26: by Tom, "Big Daddy" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tom Mathews | 2466 comments Mod
I'm reading both The Great Santini and The Death of Santini at the same time and find that it raises a lot of questions. At one point in Death of Santini Conroy said that there were some events that he remembered clearly that his six siblings swore never happened. Based on the principle of Occam's razor, I can't help wondering if the psychological strain of his upbringing affected him and his recollections of his childhood. It's easier to believe that he is the one that misremembered than that all of his brothers and sisters got it wrong.


message 27: by Kim (new) - added it

Kim Kaso | 590 comments I knew many men in the military like Bull Meecham, and some are relatives. I had a C.O. who, when he retired, became an insurance salesman because it was the only job he could get. He had been appallingly abusive of almost all of the officers on staff, especially the women. He did not believe we should be allowed to serve. A year after he retired, he came up to me and my husband in the commissary parking lot and greeted us like long lost friends, then tried to make an appointment to talk to us about insurance. I was nearly speechless, and was taken aback that after all the misery he had put me through, he would think I was a potential customer. It spoke of a desperation and was humiliating for him and made me feel a deep pity...but also a little of "karma is a bitch". I let my husband deal with him as their relationship, while not warm, was less fraught than mine with him. It has stuck with me, a year before he was king of all he surveyed with minions jumping at his word. A year later he was more like someone who had stumbled into Death of a Salesman.


message 28: by Kim (new) - added it

Kim Kaso | 590 comments On the question of Conroy versus his brothers and sisters, I have a couple of thoughts. Place in the family and gender can have a lot to do with how one experiences a parent. I was the youngest and a girl, my relationship with my dad and my parents in general was warm, I always wanted to visit them, I chose to get orders so we could be close during one tour. My siblings could not get away fast enough, and visits varied as to the level of tension. The boys' relationships were much more complicated than mine. I observed a lot of conflict, and found ways to do what I wanted without getting into head-on collisions with my parents, which never ended well. I was the peacemaker a lot of times. At the end of the day, each child's relationship is different and how they see family events is seen through that lense. Also, Conroy may have been more willing to air the family dirty laundry, denial is a powerful force in family dynamics. I have seen this play out, where family members deny abuse, deny events ever happened, and maintain whatever happened, the father is justified in what he does, doing what is best for the child...and while the family members are twisting the truth like pretzels, the father will own up to the behavior and treats it like it is just the way fathers act. The truth may lie in some territory in between. The truth is not necessarily decided by numbers...one person may choose to rock the boat of many. On the other hand, in a novel, writers have the freedom to magnify certain events for narrative impact...and I am not sure it matters how much of the book is factual. It might be interesting to know, but I think the book and its characters should be judged at the end of the day. by the impact of the story.


message 29: by Diane, "Miss Scarlett" (new)

Diane Barnes | 3824 comments Mod
I think Kim is right about birth order and place in family on perception of events. My father-in-law and his brother are only 18 months apart, were abandoned by their father early in life and went to live with their blind grandmother. Their mother worked, so they were left with her all day. Kyle, the oldest, remembers his childhood very fondly, and loved the strict grandmother. Billy, my FIL, remembers a miserable childhood with a mean old woman. Interestingly enough, Kyle became an Air Force pilot who served in Viet-Nam. My FIL is a professional photographer. The difference in them is a matter of sensitivity. Kyle could just let everything roll off his back and laugh at it, Billy's feelings were constantly being assaulted. I think that may be what happened in the Conroy family as well. Pat had a writer's deep feeling, was sensitive to his father's cruelty, and took everything to heart. Still, his youngest brother committed suicide, and his oldest sister has nothing to do with the rest of the family, so who knows?


message 30: by Howard (last edited Jun 11, 2017 05:12PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Howard | 377 comments I too think that birth order is an important factor in determining how people perceive family relationships. No, I take that back. I don't just think that it is important, as the oldest of nine siblings I know it is important.

And Kim and Diane:

It is apparent that you both have given this subject some thought and have arrived at some well-founded conclusions.


message 31: by Book Concierge (last edited Jun 14, 2017 04:38AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Book Concierge (tessabookconcierge) | 369 comments Very interesting observations re birth order / gender. My youngest brother is 14 years younger than I am. I left for collage at age 17 when he was just 3. He doesn't remember me EVER living at home. His experience of our grandparents is also very different. When I was little I loved being left at grandma's house for a week during the summer; he hated it. By the time he was born we spoke English at home almost exclusively. When I was little we spoke Spanish almost exclusively. He couldn't understand our grandparents who spoke only Spanish (and lived in a different city).


message 32: by Kim (new) - added it

Kim Kaso | 590 comments Excellent observations, as always, Diane. People deal with these issues in a variety of ways, my husband shut down his emotions and stayed in his room to avoid family conflict, I tried to understand it and make things better. My siblings moved away. When my parents became ill, I was on the scene dealing with doctors, calling everyone. When my husband's family became ill, his sisters were doing what I did, he came in towards the end and took care of the aftermath. I came along and made sure everyone was fed, got sleep, did not fight while in the hospice, made the service decisions as no one else wanted to deal with it. With my family, just when I was exhausted from sitting through the death watch, my brother wanted me to help with the burial decisions and other aftermath. I guess some of us have either a greater capacity to step up, or are more duty-bound.


message 33: by Diane, "Miss Scarlett" (new)

Diane Barnes | 3824 comments Mod
Well, Kim, if you had been of the writerly persuasion, you could be rich and famous now, and fielding movie offers.


message 34: by Kim (new) - added it

Kim Kaso | 590 comments I like to write, but am not big on using the family & friends for personal gain. Think that takes a gear I do not have.


message 35: by Diane, "Miss Scarlett" (new)

Diane Barnes | 3824 comments Mod
Pat Conroy paid the price for doing that, with his own family, and The Citadel wouldn't allow him on campus until just a few years ago, because of the book "The Lord's of Discipline."


message 36: by Kim (new) - added it

Kim Kaso | 590 comments I know. There are costs to using one's observations...Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises is arguably his best book, but he trashed his entire community of friends and family when he published it. There are many examples of this in the literary world. I remember a quote from Faulkner that I read while doing my honors seminar on him and Hemingway, something to the effect that he did not need to invent characters, he had enough relatives upon which to base them. I was on the middle of reading about the Snopes family at the time, and thought that would be quite the crew with which to spend time...then my sister married into a crew that felt equally novel-like in an exceedingly appalling way. Stranger than fiction.


message 37: by Diane, "Miss Scarlett" (new)

Diane Barnes | 3824 comments Mod
Thomas Wolfe paid the price too, with his friends and family in Asheville after Look Homeward, Angel".


message 38: by Kim (new) - added it

Kim Kaso | 590 comments Indeed he did. I sometimes wonder if this is one reason so many of those authors drank, to get past the conscience and let the story out past the part of the brain that is saying, "you are burning your bridges".


B. R. Reed (mtmoon) | 112 comments Tom wrote: "I'm reading both The Great Santini and The Death of Santini at the same time and find that it raises a lot of questions. At one point in Death of Santini Conroy said that there were some events tha..."

I find it interesting to learn that Conroy and his siblings had great differences in their recollections about their father. I believe that Col Conroy always denied the abuse allegations made by his son in the book. There is no doubt that both Col Conroy and the Great Santini of the book were great warriors. I personally believe that the Great Santini in the book loved his family dearly. I do not believe he was a terrible father or husband. He was a flawed man and alcohol contributed to many of the incidents. No excuse. In the book the Great Santini wanted to instill fury in his children. That could be read as living with great passion.


message 40: by Tom, "Big Daddy" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tom Mathews | 2466 comments Mod
It's interesting that one of the last things that he says in the book is " The children of violent men develop vivid powers of fantasy." It's almost as if he is telling us not to put too much stock in the novel-as-autobiography angle.


Howard | 377 comments I don't know that much about Col. Conroy. He may have been a good, though imperfect. father, which would make him like most fathers. However, I can't say that about the fictional Col. Meecham. Whether motivated by passion or fueled by alcohol, there is no excuse for verbal and psychological abuse of children.


message 42: by Tom, "Big Daddy" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tom Mathews | 2466 comments Mod
Howard wrote: "I don't know that much about Col. Conroy. He may have been a good, though imperfect. father, which would make him like most fathers. However, I can't say that about the fictional Col. Meecham. Whet..."

Pat said that his editor made him soften Bull Meechum's character for fear that no one would believe anyone could be so mean. The birthday gift of the jacket and the dozen roses for the prom never actually happened.


message 43: by Kim (new) - added it

Kim Kaso | 590 comments Hmmm.


B. R. Reed (mtmoon) | 112 comments Howard wrote: "I don't know that much about Col. Conroy. He may have been a good, though imperfect. father, which would make him like most fathers. However, I can't say that about the fictional Col. Meecham. Whet..."

The book is set circa 1962 (think JFK and the Cuban missile crisis). Different times from today. Political correctness was not even on the horizon. Col Meecham did not have women pilots in his squadron, women did not participate in the combat arms. I'm not aware of any marines in 1962 who openly "came out" as anything other than heterosexual. It was a time when children (in the main) were expected to show respect for their parents and elders. Everyone was not a victim. I think Col Meecham and his wife had very good children. The elder daughter was very smart and witty. The kids were a close-knit group. Ben was an exceptional 18 yr old. I bet all of the children would move forward and be successful in their lives. These days referring to your children as hogs would be considered abuse? Bull meant well. Again, he was wrong at times but his heart was in the right place. Give him a little credit.


message 45: by Diane, "Miss Scarlett" (new)

Diane Barnes | 3824 comments Mod
It's always something a reader has to watch for. It's not fair to judge a book according to today's standards. You have to consider the time it was written, and the time it portrays.


message 46: by Tom, "Big Daddy" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tom Mathews | 2466 comments Mod
B. R. wrote: " I think Col Meecham and his wife had very good children. The elder daughter was very smart and witty. The kids were a close-knit group. Ben was an exceptional 18 yr old. I bet all of the children would move forward and be successful in their lives."

I've been comparing The Great Santini to The Death of Santini and am surprised by some of the conclusions I have drawn. On the assumption that the former is basically the latter with the names changed, it was interesting to see that Bull/Don mellowed with age and even became emotionally engages with his children (some of them anyway). It seemed that as the father got his shit together to a certain extent, his children actually started to fall apart. It seemed that they were only able to operate as a cohesive unite when they were united in defense against a paternal assault. Once those tapered off the kids seemed to go after each other. I actually found that I despised the oldest daughter (Mary Ann/Carol Ann) more than anyone else in the family. She was skilled at using her tongue to inflict the most catastrophic wounds imaginable.


message 47: by Tom, "Big Daddy" (new) - rated it 5 stars

Tom Mathews | 2466 comments Mod
Conroy's portrayal of his mother was fascinating. She seemed almost too perfect in Santini but Conroy commented on this in Death , saying his portrayal of Lillian Meechum was intended to portray her as he saw her when he was a child. This actually makes a lot of sense and explains a lot of the discrepancies we see about her in the two books.


message 48: by Howard (last edited Jun 15, 2017 05:50PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Howard | 377 comments B. R. wrote: "Howard wrote: "I don't know that much about Col. Conroy. He may have been a good, though imperfect. father, which would make him like most fathers. However, I can't say that about the fictional Col..."

I remember 1962 like it was yesterday. But I also remember this:

My father was a strict disciplinarian, a man of few words, who didn't have to demand respect, because he earned it.

Despite having only an eighth grade education (his wife only finished the sixth grade) all nine of his children graduated from college and went on to achieve advanced degrees.

We loved and respected our parents and they loved and respected us. There was no physical, verbal or psychological abuse and today, though our parents are no longer with us, their memories and their influence are always with us. People marvel at how close-knit we are as a family and how there are never any disagreements or conflicts among us.

If you don't mind, I'll give the credit to my father. He was not only a better father than Bull Meecham, he was a better man.


B. R. Reed (mtmoon) | 112 comments I appreciate all of the above comments, particularly those of Tom, Howard and Diane. This was a difficult book for me because I was naturally drawn to Col Meecham but many of his antics were impossible to defend. I would totally understand how some folks, particularly women readers, would simply set the book aside. However, I think every reader would benefit by finishing the book. It seems to me that we all learn by listening to and considering other points of views, is that not the purpose of the Southern Literary Trail? PS: Col Meecham was not a southern man, he was from an Irish-American family out of Chicago.


message 50: by Howard (last edited Jun 16, 2017 07:24AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Howard | 377 comments Col Meecham was not a southern man, he was from an Irish-American family out of Chicago.

Thanks B.R. for reminding me. Bless his heart, that does explain a lot. My father, on the other hand, was a farmer from northeastern Arkansas.

I hesitated to bring up personal issues in our discussion and I admit to being overly sensitive on the subject of fatherhood, but there are reasons for my feelings. My father's mother died when he was seven years old. He and his three sibling were abandoned by their father and were raised by their widowed grandmother.

My mother's father was an alcoholic 40-acre sharecropper, which explains why neither she nor any of her siblings ever made it even to high school.

I also forgot to mention that my father would have been the exact age of Bull Meecham and I would have been the exact age of his oldest son. I suppose that also has something to do with my strong feelings about the character of the Great Santini.

And I was listening and I was considering your point of view, and I didn't mean to bring in my personal issues and biases, but I can't forgive what I consider to be abusive parenting. But it has been an interesting discussion.

One last thing: I loaned my copy of the book to my father, who after retirement had become a voracious reader (prior to that he had never had time to read). The only comment that I remember him making about the book is that he didn't like the way Bull Meecham treated his children.


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