A Yellow Watermelon

Oct 6, 2008

A Yellow Watermelon is the fourth "Young Adult" novel I have read recently. Is it useful to ask a critic in his mid-sixties to evaluate a story intended for 12-year-olds? Maybe not, but what choice do we have?

A Yellow Watermelon is the fourth "Young Adult" novel I have read recently. Is it useful to ask a critic in his mid-sixties to evaluate a story intended for 12-year-olds? Maybe not, but what choice do we have?

In any case, A Yellow Watermelon is set in rural Clarke County, Alabama, in 1948. The protagonist and first-person narrator is a boy, 12-year-old Ted Dillon. Ted is a bright and articulate youngster, although not irritatingly so. He understands what one would expect a 12-year-old to understand, not too much more, but he is observant, curious, and knows how to shut up and listen, even to hide and listen, when the grown-ups are talking.

His most admirable characteristic is that he, like his model Huck Finn, has a good heart, not yet afflicted by the racism around him.

The Dillons are poor whites. Ted's father works at the saw mill. His uncle Curvin grows cotton.

One day a week Ted sells Grit, the newspaper, which causes him to move around delivering it, and learn what's going on.

He learns that a black man named Jake is living in a shack at the mill, as a kind of watchman/caretaker, that the mill is to be closed down soon, that the preacher is a secret drunk and the local magnate, sawmill owner, and loan shark, Mr. Cliff Creel, is secretly a bootlegger. Ted becomes friends with Poudlum Robinson, a local black boy, and their relationship is at the center of the action.

Picking cotton, the Robinsons, a very respectable black family, pick on one side of the field, the white Dillons on the other. Ted and Poudlum, buddies, decide to pick side by side. The whites have a fit and the Robinsons get stubborn. If the boys aren't allowed to pick together, the Robinsons will go home.

Since the field is ready and time is short, the arrangement is allowed and Ted, speaking, we guess, years after the fact, proudly says he not only integrated the field, he was also the part of the first local threat of a boycott.

This novel has some nice characterization and local color?what folks eat, work songs in the field, ordering school clothes from the Sears and Roebuck catalog?but also plenty of action.

Ted and Poudlum get involved in some very dangerous adventures with the bootleggers, the sheriff, vicious dogs, Robin Hood adventures of taking from the rich to give to the poor, and so on. I think there is more than enough plot action to satisfy a young reader.

Which makes me wonder: might not boys be better off reading realistic young-adult novels than Harry Potter? In Brent Davis's Raising Kane the 12-year-old boy is a banjo prodigy on the road with his uncles' string band and runs into the Klan violence at the Montgomery bus station. In Roger Reid's Longleaf the 14-year-old boy and his very able 13-year-old female companion demonstrate survivalist skills in the Conecuh Forest. Watt Key's protagonist, Moon Blake, in Alabama Moon, not only survives in the woods, but has to escape the clutches of what seem to be one of many crooked, vile Alabama sheriffs and the Pinson Youth Facility.

These four books, varied as they are, have a lot in common. They reproduce actual Alabama places, realistic Alabama characters, and, in some cases, specific historical events. The young reader might learn about the forces that shaped him and his community, his parents and grandparents. These novels contain history, psychology, sociology, ethics, the natural sciences. Like the Harry Potter books, they have plenty of plot action, but the plots involve human beings one would recognize, no wizards or flaming cauldrons. I offer a hypothesis that young Harry Potter readers grow up to be readers of fantasy novels, not that there's anything wrong with that, while readers of young adult realistic fiction, craving ever more intricate psychological complications, evolve into readers of literary fiction.