Looking back and learning lessons

January 16, 1994|By Linda Simon | Linda Simon,Newsday

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Littlejohn"

Author: Howard Owen

Publisher: Villard

Length, price: 230 pages, $18

When we meet Littlejohn McCain in the summer of his 82nd year, his eyesight is weak and his memory unreliable. A sign on the stove warns him to turn off the burners, and lists around the house remind him of various chores. But Littlejohn has no trouble conjuring up his past. Although he lives alone in a farmhouse in East Geddie, N.C., his world is peopled by the ghosts of his parents, siblings and wife -- all dead, all vividly alive in Littlejohn's imagination.

In "Littlejohn," Howard Owen fashions the familiar plot of an old man's remembrances into a sensitive, beautifully written tale of redemption and reconciliation. How, Mr. Owen asks, do we make sense of the apparently disparate events of our life? How do we atone for past sins? What spiritual legacy can we bequeath to those who survive us?

Littlejohn is a hard-working farmer, the kind of man that Henry Fonda played so well: stern but tenderhearted; fiercely moral but skeptical of religious dogma; quiet, thoughtful, intelligent but not intellectual. Because he could not learn to read, he quit school early. "The point," Littlejohn explained, "was to get enough learning so that somebody else wouldn't be able to cheat you."

What he lacked in conventional schooling he made up by shrewd observation, intuition and common sense. Blessed with a prodigious memory, he learned the catechism by heart, surprising both the local priest and his mother, who praised God for giving her son the power to learn so much. "Now," Littlejohn reflected, "what I wanted to ask her, when I thought of it, was this: If Jesus got all the credit for me learning the catechism how come I got all the blame for doing so bad in school?"

Like Thoreau, who traveled extensively in Concord, Mass., McCain learned the ways of the world from living in East Geddie. He knew about anger and greed, stubbornness and self-righteousness, kindness and mercy. But a tour of duty during World War II awakened him to new possibilities of evil.

"After Buchenwald," he said, "whenever we would go into another German town, I would look at the people . . . trying to see what was different, what might of made them do something like they did to the Jews." Thinking about the Germans changed his consciousness about the relations between white Southerners and those whom Littlejohn himself politely called "colored."

A solitary man, McCain believed he would never marry. He broke off a relationship with one woman "who already thought I'd invented World War II just to get away from her." But when, nearing 40, he met Sara Blue, 19, a schoolteacher, he dared to think of himself as something other than "a wore-out old bachelor." Theirs was a long, fine marriage.

Their daughter, Georgia, inherited her mother's determination but not his serenity. "I have been selfish and self-destructive in my life, sometimes managing the amazing feat of achieving both at the same time," she admits. Her son, Justin, is a casualty of her self-absorption.

Littlejohn's journey to the past is partly inspired by an unexpected visit from Justin, who takes refuge with his grandfather while Georgia and her boyfriend travel in Europe. As deftly as he evokes the quiet reflectiveness of Littlejohn's personality, Mr. Owen manages to catch the deliberately detached voice of the adolescent Justin, a boy whose outer coolness masks painful wounds. Here, for example, Justin tells us how he happened to fail English:

"The day of finals in English, I skipped. I meant to go, and I had studied about 20 minutes, which is massive for me, the night before, because I was very close to flunking and facing the heartbreak of summer school. Mom acted like they'd take her job away or something if I flunked English, like if she was a minister and they found out her son was a Satan worshiper or something."

What Justin doesn't reveal are his feelings of anger and abandonment, and his desperate need for love. Littlejohn understands his grandson's anguish. As we learn of the tragedies in his own life -- the accident that caused his brother's death and the secret of his wife's past -- we realize that Littlejohn, too, was no stranger to despair. But he deliberately buried his pain, preferring instead to share joy with those he loved.

McCain, tempered by tragedy, affirms life and the possibility of great happiness. It seems a rare theme in contemporary novels. But "Littlejohn" is a rare book -- tender, passionate, gentle -- written by a novelist who cares about words. And cares about his readers, too.

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