The Spirit of Rural America, 1947-1955
by Fred B. McKinley
Reviewed by John Troesser
essays of Fred Barry's life, times, trials, tribulations and close
calls - at least for the years 1947-1955 were collected and written
by Mr. Fred B. McKinley, who has known Fred Barry from birth. Their
close relationship and ability to work together has produced this
book which proves that there is no generation gap when both interviewer
and interviewee inhabit the same body.
If you find this inner-child-inner-adult thing confusing, just remember
Fred Barry is the young man on the cover with the starched flour sack
shirt worn under overalls. Mr. McKinley is the bearded man in the
Texas used to sit in the shadow of San
Augustine, the county seat of San Augustine County. It is now
a town so quiet that even the clock on the town square is a sundial.
Chinquapin, halfway between San Augustine and Bronson (now do you
know where it is?) was even quieter. Although Chinquapin has now disappeared
from state maps, it lives again with the publication of this book.
The guardian spirit of the town seems to have deemed young, observant,
and curious Fred Barry to be the town resident most likely to become
a writer and save the town from becoming a mere footnote in the Handbook
of Texas. And so it came to pass that Fred Barry was sent forth into
childhood to participate in or witness a smorgasbord of incidents
and events so dramatic or comic that he would be compelled to share
them with the world. These are those stories.
Who needs Harry Potter?
One story takes place on the the San Augustine square where a daring
daylight theft of young Fred's back-to-school clothes (including some
red-trimmed cowboy boots) forces his father to buy a second wardrobe.
How could a crime like this go unsolved in East Texas? Well, because
it went unreported, that's one reason. Weeks later the "stolen" clothes
and boots were delivered to the very doorstep of the McKinley residence
by a man in a mysterious black sedan. How's that for magic?
Snakes in apple trees, slow rabbits and even slower drivers, hypochondriac
school mates, and the youngest "sugar daddy" in Texas are all found
within these pages.
There's even "Zen in the art of storekeeping" when Fred's grandfather
explains that accounts receivable have a small place in the big scheme
These stories might be considered children's bedtime tales since there
are all sorts of lessons to be learned and most children could easily
identify with the hero. The story of the worst way to start the first
day of school could benefit first-graders all over the world.
Fred claims to have survived an East Texas childhood without requiring
a single stitch or breaking one bone - although a water fountain run-in
at school came very close to providing both. There's the redundantly
named bully Carlo de Carlo, the supremely patient dog, Ol' Lep and
the story of long hours and cold biscuits which is a classic tale
of man-child compromise.
The entertainment value of the book is its most obvious point, but
we'd also like to say that it serves as an excellent example for anyone
considering writing a book about childhood, small towns or both. If
you have half the love of place and family that Mr. McKiney has, you
should do all right.
© John Troesser