THOSE DAYS by Richard Critchfield
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The MacArthur Grant-winning journalist who has written previously on village life in Asia, Africa, and Latin America here turns to his own heritage in a history of his family from 1880-1940. Initially, the book seems a skillful, but placid portrait of rural Midwestern life. However, uncovering the tragic dissolution of Critchfield's father--the author knew him only as a young child--turns the story from thoughtful nostalgia into a brooding chronicle that is turbulent, disturbing, and completely fascinating. The book's core is drawn from interviews with neighbors and family, as well as contemporary local newspapers, and hundreds of family documents, letters and journals. Critchfield extrapolates and fills in details, but his careful research generally justifies and gives credence to these fictions. There are places--in maternal grandfather Hadwen Williams, and in father Jim--where the first person singular seems presumptuous. Sometimes the specific details seem to be arranged informatively, to evoke the era, rather than simply imbuing the anecdotes as they do in the recollections of Anna Louise and Betty. At their best, these pages of interviews re-create the dream-like workings of memory, fastening on minor details, linking unrelated images and ideas, omitting basic facts, yet telling the important story. Critchfield titles the lead chapter on his mother's family ""Saints,"" and his father's "". . .and Sinners."" As one would expect, the saints kept better journals and wrote more letters, but the sinners make better reading anyway. Jim Critchfield was a successful country doctor, a father, a topflight athlete, a popular amateur actor. He drank frequently. The ravages of the Depression were hardest on the men of that era, because unlike women, they had the illusion that they controlled their own destinies. That illusion was tom away with the Crash. Doc Critchfield began his affair in 1930-31. It was with an 18-year-old girl whom he first met when he had to repair her self-inflicted abortion. She was a dizzy blonde who idolized Hollywood movies. The scandalous affair continued for six years. In this period his drinking became heavier. His son speculates that he grew depressed at his unending and often helpless confrontations with pain and suffering and death. His wife left him. In his last years he often spoke of suicide, but at the age of 49 he died of acute alcoholism. Though bare of comment or explication, this blend of history, reportage and fiction is a study of destiny. There is no simple thesis, but out of these wonderful studies of character, tradition, social convention, technological change and cultural acceleration emerges an understanding of why Doc Critchfield despaired, and why Mrs. Critchfield endured.

Pub Date: March 7th, 1986
Publisher: Anchor/Doubleday