San Francisco Book Review, Reviewed by Hubert O’Hearn
Evan Nash of Choctaw County, Arkansas played Santa Claus at the end of the annual Christmas Parade in the Delta Country, and every Sunday, he taught those same children who had cheered him as he waved his red and white-sleeved arms; he taught them their Bible study at Sunday School.
“Would you trust God if you were thrown into a fiery furnace?” Uncle Evan asked.
“Yes! With all my heart!” I replied.”
Evan Nash taught those children to love the nigras (sic) too, just as Jesus loved them. Until, one day, a young black man named Bo Taylor accidentally bumped Evan’s old Aunt Tilley Nash into a stand of grape jelly and, wouldn’t you just know, poor old Tilley went and fell and broke her hip. There wasn’t much left to see of Bo Taylor, and what there was, you wouldn’t want to see—not after Evan Nash and the rest of the Klan had tied Bo to a tree and skinned him alive. Welcome to Arkansas’ Bayou country in the mid-1960s.
Jake Evans, who was ten when those events occurred, just turned fifty-nine and is not really handling the number of that birthday particularly well. So, as many of us do when the present is grey and the future an evening leading to a dark and endless light, Jake looks back to the sunshine of his youth. Well, sunshine laced with the clouds of tragic killings. Jake is a Presbyterian lay preacher using all he has learnt of, and because of his chosen life with God, he tries to make some sense of it all.
Author James T. Stobaugh is quite an elegant writer, verging on the poetic. Growing Up White is very much a novel of mood and meaning and, yes, quite explicit in religious intent. Clearly, Stobaugh knows his material, as in his day-to-day life, he is a pastor as well as quite a gifted writer. One cannot help but admire writers who have a clear love of language, and Stobaugh clearly has that. His words, images, and just general flow of his Bayou-like pacing are common enough in excellent poetry; a rarity in prose. Rather fittingly, the first song referred to in Growing Up White is ‘Moon River,’ for Henry Mancini would be the perfect musical accompaniment for the reader to have playing in the background.
Jake, in reminiscing about childhood hunting trips with his father, says of him “He was enjoying, no doubt, the enormity of being in Devil’s Den Swamp before the dawn erased its clandestineness. When he was in the woods, in a slough, walking in a field—no matter where he was, as long as he was hunting, it was sacramental. He was communicating with his God.”
As later in life, so does Jake. Throughout this book, so does Stobaugh. This is a graceful, elegant novel about – yes – evil, yet also the redemption from evil that is around us if we choose to seek it.