Coming of age plots haven't gone out of style -- the term has. There's got to be a better phrase: Grow up or shut up. Reality excursions. Maturity madness.
The Schooling of Claybird CattsPublisher: Perennial
Author: Janis Owens
US publication date: 2004-03
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Embracing Life's Contradictions
A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
My librarian supplied me with the following definition: "Coming-of-Age stories are those in which a young person has a life-changing experience that enables him or her to become an adult -- an individual both within and independent of society." Odds are, your high school English teacher told you something similar when you read A Separate Peace and he or she attempted to make you understand the transition from childhood to adulthood as portrayed in literature. After the review of David Amsden's Important Things That Don't Matter was published in the spring of 2003, I received a nasty email from author Joe McGinnis informing me that coming of age novels were a thing of the past, not worth reviewing. Somebody should tell Anna Quindlen that, because obviously One True Thing is the story of an adult who comes of age and, if we followed McGinnis' advice, we wouldn't have bought enough copies of the book to put it on the New York Times Bestseller List. Reality is, "coming-of-age" stories are everywhere. What is the HBO series Sex and the City about other than "young" women trying to grow up? Thing is, coming of age plots haven't gone out of style -- the term has. There's got to be a better phrase: Grow up or shut up. Reality excursions. Maturity madness. We are destined to attempt to mature; whether or not we succeed is a matter of choice and will. The stories of the struggle will never go out of style.
Janis Owens gives us a superbly written novel, another story of one boy's journey toward adulthood in The Schooling of Claybird Catts. Set in northern Florida, this is a simple story of a family's search for consolation after loss; and a real life portrayal of the modern South. Thirteen-year-old Claybird Catts grows up in a family full of secrets. After his father dies, he is forced to reconcile his childhood memories with adult reality. Owens writes about the Catts family with a poignant clarity of vision, creating believable characters with which we truly identify. Written from a finely honed perspective, The Schooling of Claybird Catts, contains the voice of an "almost" man. Owens has an innate ability to offer unique perspectives in her writing -- a narration of of her characters' confusion and loss of center. Searching for his father's presence everywhere after his death, Claybird travels down dark corridors of betrayal and misunderstanding, the hallways lit by confusion and deception. In the end, he learns, as most children do, that things are not always as they seem. This is, then, how one comes of age.
I'd heard stories, I'd told stories, I'd tried baseball and spite, ironing and oral history, but when all was said and done, my father had never left me at all; had never been any further gone than the closest mirror, if I'd have only thought to look.
Don't be misled. Owens' sense of humor keeps the book deceptively light in tone. Her descriptions of childhood confusion are superb. Kenneth, Claybird's best friend, is "drawn to the supernatural" and tries to convince him that Mrs. Catts is a vampire because the Catts' house is built on top of an old slave graveyard. Claybird tries to figure out how Kenneth came up with such an idea.
God knows Miss Susan [Kenneth's mother] isn't a vampire, she's too doggone busy. Maybe it's because he's Catholic -- or was when he was born, way up north in New York, though he only lived there a few years before his parents divorced and his mother moved him and his brothers Kemp and Keith (who are identical twins) to Ft. Walton, looking for a better life. Unfortunately, all she found there was yet another husband (and a sorry one at that) and another divorce that left her crapped out at thirty with three children and no education and not many prospects. It was a burden a lot of women would have wilted under, but not Miss Susan, who, despite her sorry taste for men, is probably the best mother I know..."
The Schooling of Claybird Catts, newly released in paperback, has received accolades from all over the publishing world. Sena Jeter Naslund, author of Ahab's Wife and Four Spirits, remarked that Owens embraces "all the contradictions of a Southern childhood." Harry Crews believes the book "will hurt the reader's heart." This book is the third in a series about the Catts family. They need not be read in order, but make no mistake, they need be read. Owens' first novel, My Brother Michael was followed by Myra Sims. She is currently working on a novel concerned with her father's people -- tri-racial southerners of a different stripe than the Catts, who live outside of the mainstream of Anglo-southern life, but are even more indigenous to the region, with ties as strong to their own family and faith.