Behold, a real coming-of-age story.
The Depression-era South overflows with trials. For most, those include extreme poverty and back-breaking work. On Hardscrabble Road, however, woes run much deeper. Young Bud MacLeod, at the epicenter of family tragedy, betrayal and haunted memories, fights an uphill battle against his own impediments. At the same time, he attempts to make sense of his calamitous life.
That beloved genre, the coming-of-age novel, saturates not only any given week’s best-seller list but the entire history of literature. Countless writers have tried to capture in prose this facet of the human condition, giving us generations upon generations of young protagonists against which we might measure our own early successes and failures. You have your Jane Eyres, Holden Caulfields, even your Bella Swans. Introspection, rebellion, heartache and small victories take center stage as these characters relay to us their perilous, involuntary marches toward adulthood.
Okay, so the genre’s been around the block. Now what?
Now George Weinstein’s Hardscrabble Road. Coming-of-age hasn’t come of age without it. Weinstein’s Georgian bildungsroman weaves a tangible, living atmosphere from a period setting, outstanding characters and a heaping dose of misfortune.
Cursed with a large birthmark on the right side of his face and a confidence-crushing stutter, six-year-old Bud MacLeod shoulders a daily roster of sharecropping duties under the oppressive and not-always metaphorical shadow of his abusive, Colt-toting father, Mance. Bud’s considerable workload serves as an effective eye-opener for today’s more ennui-prone readers, but blistered fingers only mark the beginning of Bud’s journey.
The youngest of four, Bud stands at attention on the bottom rung of his family ladder. No surprises in treatment there. The hostility with which his parents treat him, on the other hand, never fails to shock. A strict mealtime seating arrangement hides Bud’s offensive birthmark from Papa’s view. Both Mama and Papa mock his stammer:
I asked for the cornbread first, since only two thin wedges remained among the crumbs and flyspecks. Papa smirked, his eyes flint-gray like the arrowheads in the creek. “M-m-mama, th-th-thank you fer the c-c-c-cornbread,” he stuttered in a whiny voice. His imitation of me was dead on.
Mama snickered and asked me, “Y-y-you sh-sh-sure?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, looking at my empty plate. Neither my brothers nor Darlene made fun of my newfound stammer. They kept their faces blank and passed what I could manage to ask for. I assembled a puny meal, leaving some of everything for Papa.
Weinstein somehow imbues even the desolation of poverty with the breath of life. At the same meal, Bud’s observations fill out the MacLeods’ dusty, sun-bleached home:
Spiders had woven thick webs above the kitchen table. A good many flies that joined our mealtimes ended their lives up there. When we ate, the spiders ate too.
A hierarchy of mean-spirited parents, browbeaten children, scavenging bugs and marginalized black field hands fills the first chapter alone. Weinstein reveals an entire ecosystem of scarcity, and that ecosystem persists and expands all through Hardscrabble Road, illuminating still-lower rungs too. The web grows to encompass game both large and small, from that scarred-up rabbit digging vegetables out of Mama’s garden to Mr. Gladney, Bud’s repulsive school principal.
Still, Bud knows no wrath like that of his father’s.
Mance’s savage outbursts render corporal punishment an issue all its own. Without a second thought, the patriarch’s belt flies off to whip those he wants to keep subordinate. He slaps, punches, threatens. He belittles Bud at every turn. That ever-present Colt at his hip? Even holstered safely in his waistband, the weapon’s deadly potential symbolizes Papa at his best: a latent monster who calls the shots.
Strangely, Mance radiates a certain magnetism. Somewhere underneath the hardened exterior, he tucks away a man of values. The occasional kernel of wisdom or harsh truth adds a conflicted, but definite, aura of respectability to his personality. Like any well developed character, Mance operates in three full dimensions. Even after he shoots at his wife and disappears for days, Papa struts back onto the fields, high on his horse and Stetson-topped, reminding Bud of his favorite cowboy serial heroes. Bud’s short-sighted adoration beautifully betrays the way children forgive parents for unforgivable trespasses.
The author makes an interesting choice for his invented dysfunctional family. After picking up on Mance’s brutality, I expected parallels to books like The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, in which the abusive father suffers from alcohol addiction. Weinstein instead chooses another avenue. Even while running a bootlegging operation, Mance won’t touch the stuff. In fact, he despises drunks.
The reason behind Mance’s abstinence figures prominently into the broader view of Hardscrabble Road, but no one explanation solves the whole riddle. Weinstein’s pace provides a steady flow of new puzzle pieces for Bud to fit together, though not in the cut-and-dried style of a mystery novel. True to life, some questions go unanswered.
Take the Dutchman and the Woman, for example. The Dutchman appears to Bud and his cohorts as a glowing orb and, on more than one occasion, aids him in exploits. More a reflection than an intervener, the Woman appears less frequently than the Dutchman, but her presence makes a deeper impression:
The Woman always dressed the same way, in a white flour-sack that blended with her porcelain arms and face. Regardless of the weather or time of day, she wore a lily-white bonnet and walked with her empty hands at her sides. She had on white high-button shoes that never got dirty or left a mark in the sand. The Woman was a haint.
The roles of these “haints” warrant comparison to the spectral visions in Wuthering Heights. Like Emily Brontë’s gothic romance, Hardscrabble Road incorporates ghosts with ambiguity, not as explicit confirmations of the supernatural. Everywhere else in the book, Weinstein’s scenes ring with unquestionable realism and honesty. It appears that the “haints and boogers” echo the real, unresolved horrors of the MacLeod family.
Weinstein balances realism with poetry elsewhere, too. The writing drips with richness and regional flavor, but this never sacrifices credibility. We’re tempted to call up an old adage for writing, “Do one thing and do it well,” but Weinstein puts that platitude to rest with his stark, no-B.S. prose interjected with phrases tender as a summer breeze and powerful as a dust devil.
In an early chapter, Bud spies his family in rare harmony:
Papa leaned against the railing with his back to me. My brothers sat cross-legged on the floor with our dogs, and Darlene was on the top step. They all watched Mama, who perched on the porch swing with her hands covering her mouth. She commenced to play “Barbara Allen” on the harmonica she carried in her apron pocket. Jay and Chet whistled along with her. Darlene hummed, since we all knew that whistling women and crowing hens always come to bad ends. Papa even made a few musical notes in his throat.
It was worth braving the nighttime to see everyone getting along. I only recalled a handful of other times when Papa and Mama had agreed to such a truce. My siblings craned their necks every so often and looked out at the front yard, but no one asked about me. A tire on Papa’s truck provided me with a backrest as I sat in the dark, watching my family act the way I imagined that other families behaved. I was afraid to join them and risk breaking the happy spell.
Time marches on. Quick as Papa’s belt, 10 years of Bud’s life flash before the reader’s eyes. Little by little, naiveté wanes. He meets girls and wins battles. Taking refuge in his school and reading, Bud’s confidence and assertiveness finally begin to blossom. He eventually grasps that he bears no blame for the sins of the father.
Yes, Hardscrabble Road uplifts. Long before deteriorating into a mere series of tragic events, Weinstein rewards readers with just enough cheer to let us catch our breaths. His pitch-perfect sense of tension and relief earn him top marks.
One universal mark of a great read becames abundantly clear by the final pages: I genuinely lamented the impending conclusion. The novel surpasses 300 pages—a functional length, but considering the large time gaps and a few loose ends, I could’ve easily read another hundred. Stretching for criticism, only the old cliché comes to mind: I didn’t want it to end.
Hardscrabble Road deserves as large an audience as any coming-of-age classic I can name.
Té Duffour is a semi-nomadic writer, cartoonist, photographer and brand designer. He blogs at DogAlleyUnderground.com.