An isolated farm boy discovers the wonderful—and war-torn—world outside his fence.
In this debut autobiographical novel from psychologist and memoirist Cromwell (A Time in China, 2014, etc.), Hanno Buchwald—the author’s fictional counterpart—experiences the aches and joys of a distinctly Midwestern coming-of-age. Arranged out of temporal order, the book’s 30 chapters bob and dive between Hanno’s birth in Linton, Indiana, in 1928 and an early adulthood marked by the anxieties of a nation in crisis. Opening with Hanno’s first memory—a peaceful, primordial recollection of a field of blue—the text soon traces the definite arc of a human life. Seemingly nothing is left out of this chronicle of Hanno’s upbringing. Included are events of traditional significance, like the uncomfortable funeral of his grandfather, as well as incidents that are refreshingly unusual (Hanno, with his parents’ guidance, learns male anatomical terms). In Linton, where residents embrace the chores of country homesteading and the mores of Christian small-town life, Hanno finds himself not only toiling at farmwork like milking and butchering, but also caring for his Alzheimer’s-stricken grandfather, who often wanders in search of “home.” Love and sexuality are frequent themes, from the genital exploration Hanno partakes in with his childhood friend Jenny Lee in the grape arbor to the romantic pursuit of Hanno and his friend by a burly but gentle soldier who arrives in Linton as part of the U.S. government’s efforts to drum up support for war bonds. Though chock-full of intimate memories and highly specific, sometimes odd, details—like the first time Hanno sees a public latrine—the book reaches its apotheosis in its striking portrait of the Pearl Harbor attack and its effect on Linton. One of Hanno’s elder twin brothers, Jay, perishes in the battle. The third-person narration, endearing and unpretentious, unspools like a fireside tale. But the emphasis on matter-of-factness over dramatic rhetoric eventually becomes a drawback, as does the account’s sluggish pace. While the book’s overarching purpose is difficult to discern, the reader should nevertheless enjoy the precision and insight that pervade the story as well as the historical details.
Meticulous and candid, this slow-moving volume about small-town life should attract aficionados of American history.