Monday, June 19, 2017

An American Summer

My consciousness on a continuous basis begins in 1956.  I do remember an incident from 1953 and other episodes that if I were to try and identify when they occurred I'd figure would be before '56.  I can remember days in kindergarten which began in 54 but they are just isolated events.

How do I know this?  Well, I remember watching the World Series with my mother in 1956 when Don Larsen pitched the perfect game.  I remember my parents speaking about the Dodgers finally beating the Yankees in 1955, but I don't recall anything about it.  And the Giants, my dad's team, swept the Indians in '54 and I have no recollection at all about that.

However, one day in 1955 is vivid.  I was watching a program that I think was called Ding Dong school.  I remember my mother yelping with joy when she heard the host announce that the Salk polio vaccine had been proven to be effective.

I don't remember the fear of polio.  I know, now, that FDR was afflicted.  And I've read some about the fright that all parents had in the late 40s and early 50s, hoping that their children would not come down with the disease. But my first real memory of polio was hearing my mother shout with joy because the disease had been cured.

The majority of the book An American Summer by Frank Deford takes place in 1954, (despite the blurb in an Amazon description suggesting that it is set in 1955).  When I finished the book I read an excerpt about it that appears on the inside flap.  There, a Peter Gent, (an author whom I've never heard of) wrote: "What a heartbreaking, heartwarming, joyful read."

Those words are right on target.  This book is beautiful with one asterisk that while not insignificant does not render the book anything other than joyful and heartwarming.

A few weeks back Frank Deford passed and I read his obituary.  I knew Deford as a sportswriter and a very good one. I did not know that he had also written over fifteen books and several novels. I went to my library network web page, saw one that looked interesting, and requested it.

It is magnificent.  I will not give much away with the following description, but if you are inclined, as I am, not to want to know anything at all about a book, you might want to skip to the next paragraph.  In 1954 a family is moving from Indiana to Baltimore because the dad has accepted a job to be president of a manufacturing company there.  The whole clan is not ready to move, so in early summer the father and one of the sons, a fourteen year old, arrives in Baltimore. The rest of the family plans to join at the end of summer in the weeks before school will begin.   Early in the story the boy saves a dog from what appears to be its demise by running into the street and carrying the dog away from oncoming traffic. The owner of the dog is so grateful that she embraces the boy and brings him to her wealthy abode. There the boy, Christy, meets Kathryn who had had it all, but now is a victim of polio. The developing relationship between Christy and Kathryn, and Christy and his Dad  makes this a very believable coming of age story.

There is nothing trite about this tale.  We see human flaws, and courage, and resolution.  Deford is so crafty that you are not sure if Christy and Kathryn are fictional or real people despite the fact that the book is called a novel.  Only when I finished it and took a good look at the beginning and end pages did I realize what was what.

I mentioned an asterisk.  The one thing I thought of while reading was that what the book does not explore are issues of race in 1954 Baltimore.  If Christy had been a black lad, and had saved the dog, while I think the mother would have been as effusive thanking him, she would not have invited him to become so much a part of her family.  So, I am thinking while reading that my reaction to the novel would be different if  I were a black reader. I might think that what the book truly shows is the racial dichotomy in 1954 where someone could come of age as Christy did in the summer of 1954, but had he been black the seeds that would have been planted would not have been related to an awareness of the world with its challenges and compromises, but rather the epiphanies would relate to how race created a different set of understandings.

That comment, however, should not discourage readers of any ethnic background from reading.   An American Summer is a wonderful book that describes in part what pre Salk vaccine parenting was like, what it is like to be courageous in the face of a life aborting disease, and what it means to be a person of substance.

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