Samuel Zelinsky is an old man, a retired professor of English literature, celebrated in his field but a bit at sea after the death of his beloved wife Nora. He's returning to Kentucky, where he lived with his family for a couple of years as they sharecropped in the hills outside of Lexington in the years immediately following World War II. The years in that small hill community were the most formative of his life and though he's long left it behind, he still has unresolved issues from his time there that he is reluctant to revisit but also determined to face in order to fulfill his wife's last charge to him. As he walks through the changed landscape, he stumbles across reminders of times long past and the boy he was, stirring bittersweet memories of best friend Fred Cody Mulligan and the hardship and innocence of their lives then.
As Samuel explores the changed landscape, he reminisces about his deep friendship with Fred, easily segueing from the present day into the 1940s narrative of his boyhood. Samuel and Fred fished and trapped, fought and explored, and with two more friends discovered (and then concealed) the source of evil that horrified the town with gruesome livestock slayings. They were the best of friends, nearly inseparable, and when Samuel's family eventually moved to Indiana and bought their own farm, the boys vowed that they would always be friends, always be there for each other. And yet Samuel hasn't returned to this green, tobacco farming part of Kentucky in sixty years, nor has he seen Fred since, even when Fred asked him to come. And that is what has driven his visit now, his desire to face up to his failure with his friend and the necessary, if rather late, need to honor their vow to each other. Most of Samuel's wandering is solitary and his recounting of these boyhood memories isn't made to anyone else (at least until later in the book). His journey back to Kentucky is terribly important to him so that he can receive absolution and for his own understanding of who he has been all his life but the reader doesn't really have a decent understanding of the man he is now. His life after his family left Berman's farm is only briefly sketched in and incompletely hinted at.
The tale of the two young boys is certainly more compelling than the theme of redemption and where that storyline goes in the end and a portion of that is probably because Samuel as an older man remains so incompletely drawn. The Kentucky setting is very authentic and the evocation of an earlier time rings true but the novel is a bit too excessively detailed, with description overwhelming plot. Samuel and Fred drift in and out of dialect when they speak and distractingly enough, the older Samuel adopts a regression into partial dialect at the very end of the novel despite not doing so right from the get go of his return to the area. The ending of the novel is very rushed, Fred's granddaughter Lisa June makes an abrupt about face in her feelings about Samuel, and Samuel himself easily and quickly overcomes his own stated reservations about this young woman in order to bring the novel to a quick emotional close that feels unearned. Although I personally was unable to love this novel, many people will find it a sweetly sentimental coming of age and will appreciate the careful drawing of a rural 1940s boyhood.
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Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.