A son remembers his North Carolina childhood in the 1960s: his abusive father, his loving mother and the racist climate that empowered a judge to place the boy in foster care when his mother became involved with a black man.
Cheek has a truly troubling tale to tell. His father was a racist and alcoholic brute who beat both his wife and his son. (The father’s relatives seem similarly unpleasant.) Cheek’s mother is all but angelic in the author’s recollection—affectionate, wise, compassionate, understanding—but also poor, forced to work long hours in menial jobs. The author likes her family much more, especially his uncle Bill, who for most of the story is loving and protective of his sister and nephew. (Later, though, when the author’s mother has an illegitimate child with the black man she adores, her relatives banish her.) Cheek tells about his mother’s tribulations with his father, about her decision, finally, to leave him, about her involvement with a local black man (a virtual saint, in the author’s eyes), about the vicious reaction in town to that involvement—and to the child that ensued (the KKK burned a cross in the yard). The principal crisis occurs when a court removes the author from his mother’s care, an action initiated by the 12-year-old’s father and his odious family. He bounces from foster care to a boys’ home and sees his mother only occasionally. Years later—after most of the principals have died—he forgives everyone, including himself for failing to be the husband he had always hoped to be. (His own marriage disintegrated.) Cheek’s pain is evident throughout, but unfortunately so is his lack of skill: He spins his tale with so little craft that the narrative loses virtually all of its potential strength, overshadowed by diction that’s often trite, dialogue that’s unconvincing and dramatic shaping that just isn’t there.
A doleful debut, heartfelt but disappointing.