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The following review appeared 20 July 2020 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Any child who grew up in a particular place during a particular era holds at least two versions of that period in his or her memory: the broad, historic narrative preserved in popular culture, media, and history books that is understood and more or less agreed upon by others who grew up during the same time, and the singular personal account experienced solely by that child. Others, such as family and friends, may share peripheral commonalities, but the child carries the precise, and sometimes fuzzy, record of events that belong only to him. Such is the basis for a memoir, a work that is 'unique' in the way Mark Twain explained the word in Following the Equator.
Dr. Gregg Andrews has written about the place known as Ilasco before, in Insane Sisters: Or, the Price Paid for Challenging a Company Town (reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum on 30 November 1999 by Mary Leah Christmas) and City of Dust: A Cement Company Town in the Land of Tom Sawyer (also reviewed by Christmas for the Mark Twain Forum on 11 December 1996), both published by University of Missouri Press, Columbia. In his childhood memoir, Andrews provides necessary geographic context but rightfully focuses on the subject at hand: childhood.
Ilasco, nicknamed "Monkey Run," is an unincorporated community on the south side of Hannibal. Originally a cement factory company town, the area took its name from the first letter of the components that comprise cement: iron, lime, aluminum, silica, carbon, and oxygen--not nearly as glamorous a way to come by a name as, oh, say the town to the north named for a Carthaginian general. But, what's in a name?
Andrews has skillfully mined his birthplace once again, this time focusing the lens on his boyhood. Rummaging through family closets brimming with skeletons, he unashamedly describes a family history replete with drinking, carousing, violence, and poverty. How poor were they? Andrews was born in 1950, and their house had no bathroom until 1967, the year he graduated from high school.
However, woven among recollections of cruelty, drownings, crime, and other dangers, Andrews has conjured music, fishing, storytelling, and other simple pleasures that carried the day. He grew up poor, often worried, and sometimes afraid. But mainly, he grew up happy. He would later realize the 1950s and '60s America depicted in popular culture had little to do with him. As he put it, "Mama was no June Cleaver . . . No, Mama dragged home from the shoe factory around four-thirty in the afternoon, already frazzled . . . Daddy, unlike Ward, dragged home all dusty, dirty, and done-in by a day's work of blasting and busting up rock in the cement plant's limestone quarries."
Andrews's family tree is brimming with scalawags and rapscallions. Readers should expect this when they encounter an early chapter titled, "Ring-Tailed Tooters, River Riff-Raff, and Shanty Boat Gypsies: Mama's People." Andrews, in addition to being an historian, is a singer-songwriter known as "Doctor G." (His band is called "The Mudcats.") He has enshrined many childhood memories in song, and excerpted lyrics set the tone for each chapter. Old black and white photos add to the nostalgia, the first-person storytelling becoming a murmured voice narrating the page-turning of a family album. The cast of characters is rich:
"Despite Daddy's alcoholism, he was generous to a fault with us kids and others. When I sat on a barstool next to him at the Marion Tap Room or Al's Tavern, he bought as many bottles of 7-Up or Bubble Up and packages of Planters peanuts as I wanted. He fed me a steady supply of coins for the pinball machine . . . or coin bowling machine. Of course, he expected me in turn not to tell Mama where we had been. I kept his secrets."
"Upon finishing the eighth grade . . . Mama quit school for a full-time job at another of Hannibal's shoe factories . . . Fresh off the farm, Mama was green and vulnerable . . . [A]t age sixteen she thought cows dig up babies. That's what her mother told her when Mama asked where babies come from. Imagine her shock one day at the factory when . . . she charged into a back storeroom and came upon two coworkers engaged in sex on a sack of shoes."
"At age eight, I took to the woods to coon hunt with my uncle
Melvin Sanders. To slip through the woods at night with Melvin and his dog
'Jigs' on the Sanders farm . . . with a carbide lantern and my Mossberg bolt
action .410 shotgun was sheer delight . . . The oldest of Mama's brothers
and sisters, he worked at an International Shoe Company factory in Hannibal
at the time he introduced me to coon hunting. In the early 1930s, though,
right off the farm he signed a contract with the St. Louis Cardinals . . .
and pitched for their Springfield farm club . . ."
"Grandma [Blanche] pulled out a dainty hand-embroidered handkerchief from her apron pocket. She untied it . . . and removed a few coins. With a smile, she pressed a dime or two into the palm of my hand . . . to buy both of us a candy bar. She liked chocolate fudge."
"[E]ven though Grandma Mary . . . lived in Ilasco, I wasn't close to her and I have few memories of her. I hated going to her gloomy house, which seemed devoid of energy, warmth, and spirit. She was cold and aloof, and according to Mama, needy and weak when it came to men."
"On rare occasions when Uncle Gordon Sanders flew home from Germany to visit, a family friend who owned a Cadillac picked him up. As a kid, I wondered if you could drive to the St. Louis airport if you didn't have a Cadillac."
Andrews remembers and details his large extended family and friends, but the best moments are his own. Even painful struggles are recounted through the forgiving filter of perspective. A chaotic home life brought confusion and conflict, but it's been softened in the rearview mirror of time. During the summer of 1957, while current events elsewhere were already becoming history, seven-year-old Andrews smoked his first cigarette, sipped his first Falstaff, held his first job, and attended his first drive-in movie. There were other rites of passage. It was also the first time he stared at his father "through the bars of a jail cell."
Throughout the book, Hannibal remains a presence, as does the Mark Twain legacy. He was fifteen when his father died, so he identified with the Finns--Pap and Huck. Andrews "drank rainbow cokes at F.W. Woolworth's lunch counter" and "ate hamburgers at S.S. Kresge's" in Hannibal. He biked or hitchhiked into Hannibal, delivered the Hannibal Courier-Post to his Monkey Run neighbors, and bought used 45 records in Hannibal when he went into town to get a haircut.
Hannibal was already a tourist destination and more or less comfortable
with its own form of whitewashing. As he grew up, Andrews pieced together
his own understanding of the world.
"At the time, I never bothered to wonder or ask why none of the black kids I played with at the Y sat beside me at the lunch counters and soda fountains." Andrews frequently experienced the stinging stigma associated with his impoverished community. When his high school principal's daughter offered to drive him home after working late on a Spanish Club project, the principal intervened, saying, "Oh, I don't think you need to be going . . . (hesitation, scrutiny, and a crescendo of emphasis) . . . down there."
Gregg Andrews approached this documentary with no small measure of love and refreshing honesty. Music, Little League, and literature counterbalanced the challenges over which he had no control: death, deceit, and an abundance of inequity. His encounters with religion (participatory), racism (observed), and politics (unformed) unsettled him and found their way into his developing principles.
"My roots were in a crumbling company town of smokestacks, whistles, and black dinner pails, but I dreamed beyond the pails, kilns, and smokestacks. I didn't want to end up working and dying at the cement plant like Daddy and his daddy . . . "
Readers will appreciate his escape from the early graves of his