Kirkus Star


An American Boyhood Before the War
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A recollection of the people, the sights, sounds, smells—the feel—of a boyhood in a harsh and splendid time in America.

Hynes (The Soldiers’ Tale, 1997, etc.), now a near-80 professor emeritus (Literature/Princeton), was motherless at five. He grew up in various places until his father settled in Minneapolis and married again. The Great Depression, seemingly permanent, was at its nadir. It was a time when folks made do or did without. It was a hard time and, in many ways, a happy time, too. Kids might easily get into trouble, but not into danger. Many people never bothered to lock their cars or front doors. Each night, though, Sam’s father ritually latched his door. He was independent, striving, and never quite making it, married to a decent, frugal, hardworking stepmother to his two boys. As his son recalls him, his father was gentle and good. Trust the author’s memory. He remembers the seasons: the halcyon summer on a farm, culminating by a view of a stallion servicing a mare (“something heroic . . . like a parade or a brass band”), and the Minnesota winter, with laundry frozen on the line and snow that made distance evaporate. With him we play cops and robbers again (the little kids are the cops), listen to radio serials, graduate finally to long pants and discover jazz. We edit the high-school newspaper, take Manual Training, and encounter, fumbling, the opposite sex. The tale closes, not ends, as the nearly grown-up boy enters WWII. It is nothing really extraordinary, nothing uncommon; it’s just a story told with uncommon narrative skill. Past tense frequently gives way to present tense, present again in those youthful days now long past. It’s a work evocative for those who remember just which war was The War and instructive to everyone else. The trip to the author’s bountiful root cellar of memory is augmented with snapshots and clippings.

Comfortable as an old cardigan and more than simple nostalgia: a memoir in turns sagacious and poignant, the way it ought to be.

Pub Date: March 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-670-03193-3
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 2002


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