Mon December 18, 2006
This novel is sold as young-adult reading and is just that. There is no sex or unpleasant violence, and Eddie, like any twelve-year-old, is a combination of innocence and curiosity, with a road trip that speeds up the process of his maturation.
By Don Noble
The hero of Brent Davis's second novel is Eddie Kane, a twelve-year-old boy on Sand Mountain. Eddie's school is in Geraldine, his post office is in Albertville, and he kind of lives in between. Eddie has a passion for baseball and wants to spend the summer playing second base, but the folk of Sand Mountain in 1961 have two passions. Baseball is one, to be sure, especially the St. Louis Cardinals, but the other is music, country music, bluegrass, the string band.
"Music lives on Sand Mountain like nowhere else. Even today if you visit you'll find people in church playing guitars and mandolins, and when the weather starts getting warm in the spring you'll see family bands on front porches playing songs for their neighbors."
Music is in the air and soil of Sand Mountain and in Eddie Kane's blood. He is a prodigy, "the twelve-year-old terror of the five-string banjo." Eddie's uncles have a band, the Bragger Brothers, and they need a banjo player, to travel with them, on the road, all over the South. Although he is very young for this kind of adventure, Eddie's family agrees, because they need the money he will make. His dream of playing baseball will have to be deferred.
The band of five play one-nighters everywhere and they don't earn much. After most performances they move on immediately to the next one, taking turns driving?except for Eddie, sleeping in the car, and only occasionally staying in cheap rooming houses. There are too few showers, too few laundromats, and none of Mama's cooking, and Eddie, who starts out painfully shy with stage fright, becomes just tired and homesick. It is a tough life for a twelve-year-old, but as the band moves from VFW dance to Elks Club picnic to car lot grand opening, Eddie learns more in one summer than most boys would in five years.
During the summer of this novel, the civil rights movement in Alabama is just beginning. Driving into Montgomery, the band accidentally comes upon a small riot, as freedom riders are brutalized at the Greyhound station.
Later, when their car breaks down somewhere near the Florida panhandle, the talented mechanic who fixes it is a black man who had been with the Red Ball Express, the WWII segregated Negro unit that hauled ammunition and gas to Patton's tanks in France and Belgium and Germany. Eddie's uncles, white men from Sand Mountain, are not particularly advanced types, but upon hearing this, Uncle Berry, a vet, says: "I read once Eisenhower said we couldn't have won the war without the Red Ball Express."
While they are waitin for the car to be repaired, Eddie and the fiddle player, Murray, spend a little time at a black club, listening to music?the blues?that Eddie has never heard before.
Murray is a Yankee and a Jew and actually likes rock and roll, a new musical form that Berry, Byron, and Cecil, the other members of the band, view as one might an approaching plague. Elvis?"that pretty boy singer, what's his name?"?is on the horizon and seen as the devil. To African Americans, he's a musical thief; to white musicians, a threat. At this point, the Beatles and their cataclysmic effect on American music are not yet dreamed of in Alabama. If they had been, Berry, Byron, and Cecil would probably have performed a group hara-kiri.
This novel is sold as young-adult reading and is just that. There is no sex or unpleasant violence, and Eddie is a boy without vices who misses his mama. Like any twelve-year-old, he is a combination of innocence and curiosity, and this road trip speeds up the process of his maturation. It is amusing, or perhaps unsettling, to think of the difference in sophistication and experience between that 1961 twelve-year-old and a twelve-year-old in 2006, but that is another subject altogether.
Although Brent Davis's first novel also features a twelve-year-old boy, Duncan Worthy, Raising Kane is unlike Davis's first novel in many respects.
The Spelling Bee was a calm comedy in which a boy joins forces with Ruth Stetter, a sixty-four-year-old retired editor, to right the orthographic wrongs she sees about them. That is, they move around town at night correcting signs that read Kwik-Snak, Video Xpress, Dari Dandi, Stitches n' Stuf, Kopy Kat, Speedi Maid, U-Haul, and Kountry Mart. You get the picture?all the public misspellings and uglinesses that are helping to destroy, slowly, the English language. Ruth knows the difference between capital and capitol. She even knows how to use apostrophes, which would, in a civilized society, make her a national treasure.
I have long thought that The Spelling Bee would make a good Disney movie, and so would Raising Kane. The Spelling Bee is a more fully realized novel, with a longer, more complex plot, but either is good reading for literate people.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.