Home > Book Reviews, Harry Crews > Book Review – A Childhood: The Biography of a Place by Harry Crews

Book Review – A Childhood: The Biography of a Place by Harry Crews

I’ve been pretty much obsessed with Harry Crews lately, so much so that I re-read his novel A Feast of Snakes simply because I didn’t have anything else of his to read. I scoured the internet for anything about him, which didn’t add up to much. A few bits and pieces here and there. And everything that I read reinforced the rapidly solidifying notion that Harry Crews was a great writer, a vital (for me) writer. Why exactly I have taken to this man and his writing so completely is guesswork, but I have. And his reputation seems to rest more than anything on his memoir of growing up in Bacon County, Georgia: A Childhood: The Biography of a Place. I’m reading this in the volume Classic Crews, which also includes A Gypsy’s Curse and Car, which I’ll get to next.

One of the first things that stuck me about this was the number of similarities with A Feast of Snakes. Names of people often overlap (Lottie Mae and Berenice are two that spring to mind). In this memoir, as in the novel, there’s moonshine, drunken raging of every kind, blacks and whites living together (though not exactly equitably), shotguns, and a sensation of the protagonist (Joe Lon or Crews himself) spinning out of control as he discovers the terror and beauty of the world. This is gripping, shocking and brutal, but if a book is intended to open a window into another time and place, to allow us to see through, then there’s no more successful book than A Childhood that I can currently think of.

Crews’ childhood was a dismal one; one that makes my own miseries tremble into insignificance. Born to dirt-poor sharecroppers in one of the poorest parts of America, at the tail end of the Great Depression, Crews suffered almost unimaginable hardship and misfortune in the first half dozen years of his life. His own father dead before he was two years old, Crews looked up to another man, his uncle, as a father, only to fall victim to that man’s trail of drunken destruction. One scene, in which the not yet six year-old Crews is told that he can never see his father again, and that that man isn’t even his real father, is among the most powerful things I have read. And there’s a section where the boy is almost boiled alive in boiling water, after which his skin and fingernails come off in sheets.

A Childhood appears to have been widely recognised as not only this author’s finest achievement, but as one of the greatest memoirs about life in the south of the United States in the twentieth century. The writing has a clarity and power that most writers, including myself, can barely dream of. But it took its toll on Crews, who appears to have sunken into a long depression upon completing this work. This is as close to perfection is one is ever likely to find between the pages of a book, and if that seems like unreasonable hyperbole, read it for yourself and claim otherwise.

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