Sunday, 12 July 2015

Small Town Books

On Jul 14th, I will head down to my local book store, The Laughing Oyster, and pick up the copy of Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to Harper Lee's masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird, the book she released in 1960, 55 years ago. I have to say, I'm very nervous about this as Mockingbird has long been my favourite book and also movie. From what I've read Mockingbird actually formed part of Go Set a Watchman, sort of a sequence of flashbacks within the story and her publisher suggested she pull out the flashbacks to make Mockingbird. Genius if that story is true. Go Set a Watchman follows Scout, now a woman and living in New York, as she begins a journey back to her hometown of Maycomb, Alabama. I think if this book is even half as good as Mockingbird, then I'll be very happy. Will I start reading it right away? Good question, but I might just do that. Screw my challenges.. lol

Last night on PBS, they had a special feature on Harper Lee; interviews with other authors, with Harper's sister, discussions about racism and the possible impact of the book, discussions about the characters and how they related to Harper's life. It was very interesting and sometimes emotional for me as this book always strikes a deep chord with me. Seeing scenes from the movie and hearing parts of the book read out loud got me quite choked up. I say it strikes a chord with, but I'm not quite sure why. Life in rural Alabama in the 1930's isn't something I can relate to at all, maybe it's that it has to do with growing up, with family and is just a great emotional story.

It did get me thinking of other similar types of stories, difficult to label, but I'm going to call them 'small town' stories', stories for the most part set in small towns, or close areas and stories involving family life.  Once again, I don't necessarily relate my growing up to these scenes as I was a military brat. In a way, living on a military base can be similar to small town living, in that it's a closed, small  community. The big difference is that you don't necessarily grow up with the same people as you are always on the move and starting life in a new, small, close community. Maybe that is what strikes a chord with me, the  people in these stories grow up with each other, their lives are affected by these people and their families. It's a life I haven't really lived and at times am envious of.

Anyway, this isn't really a top ten list, but the stories below have struck a chord with me and have many similarities. See what you think of these 'Small Town' stories.

1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) - This is the book that's started this discussion. I've written Blog entries about it before, particularly when I went through my All - Top Ten favourite books. It's been my favourite for many years and will always be my favourite book. I don't know when I first read it, it may have been for school, was at least a library book that I signed out. I've read it 3 or 4 times over the years and I've seen the movie at least as many times if not more. It's a beautifully written book, touching, emotional and a story that draws you in. It's a story told from the perspective of Scout, daughter of one Atticus Finch, and is about her family relationships, with her father, her brother Jem, their maid, Calpurnia and her neighbours and friends. It's about how these relationships affect her life and help her grow up. It's also about much bigger things, large in scope, racism in the South, relationships between blacks and whites, about heroism and civilisation. It's a simple story, but one that even today, 55 years later, still strikes a chord.

2. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (1940) - Oddly enough this book also fits into my All-time Top Ten list and is also set in the South, this time in Georgia. There are obvious differences between this and Mockingbird. For one, the focus is on a deaf man, Mr. Singer, but having said that, one of the people he meets and who affects his life is Mick, a tomboyish girl, whose parents own the rooming house where Mr. Singer resides. Mick is one of the characters around whom the story revolves, her fears, her desires and how they are impacted by Mr. Singer, by her family's poverty and the other characters that infiltrate Mr. Singer's life. Once again, it deals with other bigger issues, racism, poverty, treatment of handicapped. It features life in this smallish southern town, the relationships of the people who live there and how they all impact each others lives and futures. This book was also made into a movie, starring Alan Arkin as Mr. Singer and Sondra Locke as Mick, another movie that treated the book and story with respect and love and was just as good.

3. Peyton Place by Grace Metalious (1956) - Once again, a small town story, this time set in the US Northeast, but of a much bigger scope time-framewise than the first two. The children in this book grow up, some move away and come back. It is a fascinating story of secrets that affect the lives of the people of this small town. Everybody has one or two and as the story unfolds, these secrets affect lives, futures, even to a drastic degree. The people are drawn in a manner that you can see them, know them. I don't know if it's odd or appropriate that these first three stories were written by women, but they are and each is an expert craftsman, describing the people, the lives, the towns with care and skillful technique. Each book was also the first released by either author and in some cases, as in Lee's, she never wrote another book (until now) and in Metalious', she wrote a few others, but never achieved the success of Peyton Place. McCullers did achieve success with other novels, but I can see the difficulty of matching a book that is so instantaneously successful, with another.

4. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943) - Now wait just a darn-tootin' minute, I hear you growl. Since when is Brooklyn a small town! You're quite right, Brooklyn isn't a small town, but hear me out. This is the story of 11-year old Francie Nolan, who lives in a Brooklyn tenement house with her brother, Neely, and her family. Their life revolves around their street, their 'small town'. It focuses on Francie's dreams, dreams of going to a good school. It deals with so many issues, poverty, of course, the family's struggle to make ends meet on their mother's earnings because the father is a drunk and a layabout dreamer. It's a series of vignettes, portrayed with care and attention by Betty Smith and it's about growing up, trying to attain your dreams. A lovingly, caring story and once again, another great movie. Funny how these movie producers find such excellent books to make great movies out of.

5. Who Has Seen the Wind by W.O. Mitchell (1947) - I first heard of this book and read it while taking a Canadian Literature course at University of Toronto. It is set in the Prairies of Saskatchewan in the 1930s and tells the story or the growing up of young Bryan O'Connal in a prairie community. It's a story of family, of life and death, told in vignettes in a touching, wonderful way. This book was also made into a movie, starring Gorden Pinsent and Helen Shaver and it's a slow-paced, lovely story and there are scenes that never fail to make me laugh or cry.

6. The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy (1945) - A French Canadian classic, the story is set in the slums of Montreal, Quebec. The characters are a bit older than those in the other stories. The focus is Florentine Lacasse, a young woman who works in the local five-and-dime store, supporting her family. But the themes are similar, she had dreams, desires to improve her situation and move onto better things, but finds herself dealing with family poverty and supporting her family with her earnings. This story also covers bigger issues, it is set during the war and covers relationships between the French Quebecers and their English compatriots. A profound, unsettling, strong story.

There are many other Canadian authors that dealt successfully and powerfully with these small-town lives and stories. To name a couple, there is Margaret Laurence, one of the major figures in Canadian literature. Her books have been successfully translated to the big screen, especially The Stone Angel, starring Ellen Burstyn and A Jest of God, which was translated to a movie under the title Rachel, Rachel starring Joanne Woodward.  The other author I wanted to mention was Alice Munro and especially her book of short stories, Lives of Girls and Women, which chronicle the life of Del Jordan as she grows up in the small southern Ontario town of Jubilee.

Well, there you have it, definitely an incomplete list, but a starting point if you're looking for this type of story. Every one is a joy to read and will enhance your reading experience and maybe even your life perspective.

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