By James Still, edited by Silas House
The University Press of Kentucky
James Still's Chinaberry is the story of the summer he turned thirteen and went from his Alabama home to Texas with Ernest, a family friend. That's a simple plot, yet it grips and holds the reader fast as the boy comes of age during the most unexpected of circumstances. We aren't told the exact year, but we know it's the time of Model T Fords and Stutz cars.
The book starts with "This was a place where half the world was sky, a place I had never imagined, much less expected to be." We size up the narrator and place in one sentence. We then learn Jim and Ernest need to work to pay for their time away from home.
And therein turns the tale, as full of mystery and wonderment as if they had gone to Kipling's Mandalay. After a day of cotton picking Ernest gets to work with horses and Jim - well, you just have to read the book yourself. The only spoiler I'll be accountable for is telling you what I now consider the best last line ever: "I never saw them again. I grew up; I remembered."
Chinaberry is noted Appalachian author Still's posthumous novel. Folklorist Silas House edited the manuscript found in a battered old briefcase. How much is memoir and how much is fiction is open for debate. It doesn't matter. Jim, living in the moment at thirteen and looking back at ninety or thereabouts, has been breathing alongside me during two evening's of reading.
Still's award-winning 1940 debut novel River of Earth depicts the narrow choices for a coal mining family in Kentucky. Brack and Alpha, from that debut, became as ingrained in my psyche fifty years ago as has Jim just now.