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    Book Review: The Charlatan’s Boy by Jonathan Rogers

    January 26, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    I‘ve said around here before that I believe that there is very little well-written fiction these days. As a general rule, I abide by the if-it’s-new-it’s-probably-inferior school of thinking. And literature? It just isn’t written anymore, it seems. (I know many of you are shaking your heads in agreement here.) Well, if I say that there’s not much being written well for adults, it is even truer (if something can be truer than true, which is debatable, I agree) for children and young adult fiction.

    This is why N. D. Wilson has been considered by some to be the last best hope for the great art epitomized by the likes of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.

    Not so fast, Mr. Wilson. Jonathan Rogers, in The Charlatan’s Boy, is giving you a run for your money, and he doesn’t even go by his initials!

    Why I Selected This Book for Review
    The Charlatan's Boy: A NovelOkay, so I was browsing the Blogging for Books website, and I stumbled into the fiction section. Not being a big fan of the Christian fiction genre, I was preparing my quick exit when I noticed something. See that cover over there at the right? Well, now, isn’t it something? Doesn’t it awaken your curiosity, if only a little? It did mine. What’s a gypsy cart doing on the front of a YA novel?

    So I clicked.

    I wasn’t sure about the back matter, but what caught my eye was this little bio of the author:

    Jonathan Rogers grew up in Georgia, where he spent many happy hours in the swamps and riverbottoms on which the wild places of The Charlatan’s Boy are based. He received his undergraduate degree from Furman University in South Carolina and holds a doctorate in seventeenth-century English literature from Vanderbilt University…

    I repeat: a doctorate in seventeenth-century English literature. It stopped me in my tracks, it did.

    Maybe, I thought, this guy can actually write.

    Background
    First, I’m going to give some background without spoilers to whet your appetites.

    Jonathan Rogers has created another world. It feels sort of like Tolkien’s Shire, early America, even earlier Britain, Georgia, Florida and something out of a Mark Twain novel all rolled into one. This world is called Corenwald, and it’s an island off the coast of the United States, I suppose, which reminds me of the Island “nation” featured in one of my favorite modern novels, Ella Minnow Pea.

    Our hero is a boy named Grady who lives a gypsy-like life with a man named Floyd, who isn’t his father, and who claims to have found him under a palmetto bush. Floyd has Grady pretend to be a “feechie” as part of a great, traveling dramatic scam off of which Floyd and Grady make their living.

    What is a feechie, exactly? Well, a feechie is, I suppose, a creature–human or something else is probably up for debate–indigenous to Corenwald. Like our own Native Americans, I would venture to guess they preceded the Corenwalders in their residence on the island. Feechies remind me of hobbits, only ugly ones. They are described as being sort of monkey-like, wiry and good at climbing, very fast, and agile in the tree tops. Like hobbits, we get the sense that they, too, possess something of the divine image. Despite their ugly features (ears which stick out like a monkey’s, and the characteristic unibrow, for starters), we get the sense that they are noble creatures nonetheless.

    Of course, we also get the sense they may not be real, but only a figment of the the Corenwalder imagination, fed by the sounds of the swamp at night.

    It is upon this nutritious feast of dreams that the story of Grady and his adventures nourishes itself.

    Why I Loved This Story
    The story itself is great. I don’t think I have anything to complain about, and there is a lot worthy of praise. But I don’t just love this book because of the story. There are a number of good stories out there. This book is a light in the darkness because Mr. Rogers has a way with words. Sometimes, his sentences were so perfect I read them two or three times, just for the joy of witnessing a phrase written by a living author turn so beautifully. The Bible tells us:

    A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.

    Proverbs 25:11

    Sometimes I felt like I was in a whole orchard of golden apples!

    There is a moment when little mother-hungry Grady is looking into the window of a one-room schoolhouse. He sees the beautiful school teacher, and he thinks to himself,

    The marm at that school was a young woman, so trim and so big eyed that she put me in mind of a she-deer. Just looking at her through the window, I could tell she smelt good.

    I love that he thinks about what she smells like while he is watching her. Here is an author who knows something about humanity, that we do not merely see, but feel and hear and taste and smell as well.

    What I Told My Son Before I Handed Him the Book
    My son is only 8-years-old, but he’s a fine reader, and I have only one reservation about letting him read the book. At the very back of the book, we learn a little more about the author:

    [Rogers] is a lifelong devotee of the vernacular storytelling traditions of the American South…

    He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.

    The book is written in the first person, and it is Southern vernacular from beginning to end. This is one of the reasons why I said it was one-part Mark Twain. Grady and Tom Sawyer would understand each other completely.

    My son, on the other hand, is California born and raised. He has rarely heard a Southern accent. So I told him two things:

    1. This book is written with a twang (I did my best imitation). So, when you’re reading the book, you need to hear that twang in your mind to get the proper effect.
    2. Do not learn to spell from this book. Or else.

    That last one was my reservation. If he comes out spelling professional as perfessional, I suppose I might kick myself.

    **Spoiler Alert: Last Chance to Turn Back!**
    Throughout the book, Grady is looking for his mother. He aches to have a family, a community, to be loved. Sometimes, his longing for community is so palpable, I could have sworn Mr. Rogers had handed the reigns over to the great Wendell Berry himself. The book is full of adventures and intrigue, but that search for a mother provides the backdrop for almost every chapter.

    Two things happen at the end that forever change Grady’s life. First, he is betrayed by Floyd, whom he has served as faithfully as a pet dog for as long as he can remember. When things go wrong in their act, Floyd decides the boy Grady is too much baggage. Floyd manages to abandon the boy to the crowd and raise the price on admission to his “lecture” all in one fell swoop.

    Floyd sold me for a two-copper raise.

    We are just as astounded as Grady, and we cannot help but be reminded that our Lord Himself was sold for thirty pieces of silver.

    Shortly thereafter, the story really picks up the pace, and we see a chase scene and a revelation: feechies are real.

    And Grady might just be one of them.

    A feechie named Tebo takes Grady home with him. The details are fabulous, but if you want them, you’ll have to read it for yourself. Tebo takes Grady all the way to his long-lost father and mother. They are reunited, and there is a big party.

    This is not really the notable part.

    What is perfect is this: Tebo recognized Grady because of a song. Grady’s real name is Cato, and he’d been missing for over a decade. His mother had sung a song about him at every big feechie cultural gathering since he’d gone missing. One stanza says this:

    We’ll never forget your sweet eyes, Missing Cato–
    One green, the other one blue,
    A little close-set; otherwise, Missing Cato,
    A perfectly formed set of two.

    It’s not a rune from Tolkien, granted, but just the idea that song was incorporated into the culture of a fantastical world is satisfying for me, especially because Rogers seems to understand the nature of folk music:

    It was that song that saved me, you know. When Tebo was staring at me in the bamboo cage, it was because he remembered the song about Missing Cato’s eyes: “One green, the other one blue.” He knew who I was because my mama never let anybody forget.

    And so it was that Grady Cato was saved by a song.

    ______________________

    Note: I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for the purpose of this review.  If you have the time, I’d love for you to rank my review over at Blogging for Books. Just click the icon at right.

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    3 Comments

  • Reply Kelly January 27, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    Yes, drawl! That’s the word I was looking for.

    I’ve lived in the South for all but eleven months of my life when my husband was stationed at Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, New York. I was born and grew up in Arkansas; when we married, we lived in Biloxi, MS, for a few months; then Valdosta, GA, for six years followed by the eleven months in Upstate New York; then three and a half years in Montgomery, AL, three and a half years in Hampton, VA, four years in San Angelo, TX, and the last five and half years we’ve been in the Northern Neck of Virginia.

    My family for several generations lived in Arkansas, and before that, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia. My husband grew up in Jacksonville, FL, but his parents were from Virginia (his mom grew up about an hour from where we live now) and Alabama/Georgia. His dad’s mother is 101 years old and still lives in the house her papa built in 1919 on the GA/AL border near the Chattahoochee River.

    My parents and in-laws all grew up in Wendell Berry’s world, but Mike and I grew up in the suburbs. It’s so sad how easily lost a good heritage is, and how hard it is to rebuild.

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts January 27, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    Drat!

    Drawl.

    I ought to have said drawl!

    Did you live in Georgia? My great aunt and uncle lived in Georgia and I remember visiting them in junior high. I felt like I was in another world! I loved it.

    All those places you mentioned sound just like the names of places in the book!

  • Reply Kelly January 27, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    Oh, it sounds really good — I’ll have to get it. Like you, I don’t trust living authors (except for Wendell Berry!).

    But, ooh, Southernrs don’t speak with a twang — that’s how Yankees talk. Southern speech is softer and slower than Standard American, more like murmuring. I’m remembering the years we lived in Valdosta, Georgia, on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp, by the Withlacoochee River that flows through it before joining the Suwannee. In spite of being miserably hot most of the year the place is lovely, the people are lovely, and so are their accents. 😀

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