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The Voice Of Free Earth
by Michael Klein
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Richard Rodriguez, author Hunger of Memory and Days of Obligation
In so many ways, Christopher's boyhood - his loneliness, his resilience - rhymed with my own. I loved the gentle but unsentimental evocation of the Valley through his story. At times, the writing reminded me of the great Saroyan himself!
Karen Way, The Wounded Healer Journal
Many of us wonder, "How can it be that I have so many positive memories of childhood and yet all these terrible things happened to me?" In the autobiographical stories that form The Voice of Free Earth, Michael Klein shows how it's done. In prose that is lucid, sweet and heartbreaking, he shows how how childhood creates its own spell in the midst of irrational violence and persists with hope and even joy -- until the child becomes adult and the spell is broken.
Set in "Free Earth," a mythical community based on a real place in California near the San Joaquin Valley, The Voice of Free Earth follows the growing up of Christopher Beale, second son of an admired and often admirable country doctor. Among his patients, Doc Beale overcomes cultural and linguistic barriers to treat poor farmworkers who love him. At home, he is unpredictably violent and sadistic. He exposes his children to obvious dangers, terrorizes his wife, and hits his sons with a doctor's care so the bruises will not show.
But none of this is obvious in the first quarter of the book. Instead we see life through the eyes of a curious, quiet child whose older brother is his main role model, and who explores his neighborhood with wonder and delight. His traumas seem to be typical kid-traumas -- climbing too high in a hayloft, being left out of games, being teased by his brother. His father begins to take shape only in the wordless unified obediance shown by his wife and children whenever he is around. As violence approaches, we see it coming in Chrisopher's frantic inner monologues of hypervigilence and appeasement.
But when the attack starts, Christopher switches from frenzy to calm, drifting without emotion in the eye of the storm, effortlessly interpreting catastrophe as ordinary:
"He had no thoughts. He saw and appreciated nothing; everything was mercifully automatic. . . His father stopped the kicking and jerked Christopher up to his feet for a quick inspection. . . He scraped the muck off Christopher's face with one motion. It was like wiping grease off a crankcase. . . Christopher was breathing again . . . As he became aware of himself and his feelings, he felt calm, dead calm. This was a familiar place. This was what life was all about. The anticipation was hell. The moment of delivery was almost reassuring. He would be safe for a few days. Doc Beale's fit had run its course.
"Christopher went back to the barn. He ran water over his head and face, and then over his whole body. The dirt and blood washed off quickly. The half a dozen embedded little rocks and stickers took specialized care. He was worried about his face. He had plans for summer school the next day. And being perfect, visually at least, was a big part of those plans. He looked only forward. He felt nothing about the episode that had just occurred. He didn't even think about it. He held the hose on top of his head and just let the water run." (- pp. 188-189)
The simplicity of the sentences that record Christopher's world help us understand that for children repeated events ARE ordinary, no matter how extreme the events may be. Doc Beale shows up only gradually in Christopher's story because for a while he's just too familiar to stand out from the background. He's not "news;" he's just the way fathers are. By the time Christopher understands the difference in his father's craziness, he is an adolescent tormented by crazy feelings of his own.
The accomplishment of this book is the "voice" -- the extraordinarily simple and poetic narration that avoids self-pity and hatred. The extreme honesty of the voice makes it easier for us to see the selectivity of Christopher's vision and his refusal to evaluate what is happening to him. We see how a child's denial of his own harm grows dangerously toward an adolescent's denial that he can harm others. But we know Christopher escapes his father's fate because we hold his book in our hands.
Parts of this book may be hard for survivors to read, both because violent scenes are described, and because they are described from such a dissociated point of view. There is no sexual abuse, but readers may find it strangely triggering to be in the mind of a boy scanning his yard for the safest place to be beaten, or feeling the feverish happiness of being praised by his abuser.
Other reviews of this book seem unaware of the abuse, focusing instead on a bittersweet depiction of growing up in a complex time. It's hard to tell if I am overly preoccupied with abuse, or if these reviewers were lulled by Christopher's dissociated perspective. I think the latter. Eeriest of all is a long column by the editor of the newspaper in the town where the real Doc Beale lived, a doctor truly mourned by his community when he committed suicide in the 1970's.
A note by the author on www.amazon.com says The Voice of Free Earth is the first of a trilogy. I look forward to reading the rest of "Christopher's" story. I want to know more about how he built the self that could write this this book and become the father of the sons to whom it is dedicated. Why did Michael Klein name his home town "Free Earth"? I think about the freedom of Christopher's boyhood as he dodged among dangers he refused to acknowledge. But I also think Free Earth is a place created by exercising the freedom to tell the truth. In that case, we can all live in Free Earth. Michael Klein shows us how difficult that is, and how easy.
This letter looked like it might hold something special. It was the first letter I opened. I knew what it was. The author had called earlier in the week explaining that he was sending a letter to the editor.
Some people in town had been hurt by a book he had written, called The Voice of Free Earth. His name: Michael Klein. He had written about his home town, a dicey thing to attempt without hurting someone or risking the chance that someone might read themselves into a character and not like what they see. A gutsy thing to do since writers reveal more about themselves through their own writing than they do about any character they write about.
How many of you have thought about writing a book about Hughson? I bet more than would admit it. I know there are closet novelists who could write up a storm about their own experiences in this town.
When Klein called, I had a hard time suspending disbelief that anyone had made a serious attempt to capture some of the flavor of the town in a book. And who would claim to have that authority? Everyone knows that you can't be an authority on Hughson unless you have lived here all your life plus fifty years. I had to get a copy for myself and see what this was all about. Klein graciously sent a reference copy, and from the appearance of the book, it looked professional. I started to read and could tell from the first several pages, he was no amateur. This was a genuine, well-crafted piece of literature.
So then I thought, "How could a book this good escape my attention?" That's what everyone else was asking who I talked with. First they were like me. "Where can I get a copy to read?" Then, sometimes there was a glint in the eye as if they would like to see some not so friendly friend exposed in fiction. Come on. Admit it.
I'm lending a copy to whoever wants to read it. The catch, you have to write in the margins. I wasn't sure if I should write about the book. "Let the letter to the editor stand by itself," I thought. "People can read it for themselves and form their own opinion," I thought. I could write a news story about it. The headline would read: "Book causes stir," or "Book about Hughson just written." But giving it some thought, I decided to do something more personal and touchy feely like write about my own feelings and reactions to the book. GASP ... here goes.
This book is hard to describe because it is so much about feelings rather than plot, characters, timeliness and all those mechanical things we talk about.
It is about Hughson. Free Earth is Hughson. Seventh Street is made reference to. There are several real incidents fictionalized. You will have to figure out who was a part of the event and when it occurred because the real names are not used. Modesto is made reference to by name.
Klein tells his story through the eyes of a boy who grows up in Hughson. The boy is traced from infancy all the way to adulthood. Dr. Klein is his father in this book, though not by name. The father drives a Porsche. Dr. Klein drove a Porsche. Anyone who has been in town for very long will recognize him immediately. Everyone I talked to who knew him remembers him as a caring and dedicated doctor. That is how he is portrayed in the book. He is one of the main characters. He is also the central influence on the main character who is Michael as a boy. The book so much reflects the town as far as I can see, it is full of joy, nostalgia, conflict, reverie, pain and acceptance.
Mom brings out purple cool aid and sandwiches to her sons as they construct a fort during the summer. Brothers fight over control of the fort. This happens in one chapter. Dad becomes obsessive, increasingly paranoid and takes his life. A young boy tries to become a man in a town where it is expected that men mature into strong leadership figures. All the expectations of being a doctor's son.
Klein tells his story eloquently and is true to the mark artistically portraying this town. We are very fortunate to have someone with this talent tell our tale to the American public.
As a woman, I was somewhat left out of the book since there were no main female characters to relate to, but the book has a way of reaching out to women. I can't describe it, though it remains true to its masculine identity. In its male perspective, it truly reflects the town. This book is the first in a trilogy, I am told by the author. Expect more to come. I know I can't wait.
It is not often that I read a book that I find difficult to put down and dread finishing because it means I'll have to wait for the next book by the same author, but you are now on that list for me. I just read Amy Tan's Hundred Secret Senses and it ranks up there with the best - yours too! I am a convert to the Michael Klein trilogy!
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