A Far Piece to Canaan is not my usual reading fare. But I was extremely curious to read it, as Sam Halpern is the father of Justin Halpern - author of Sh*t My Dad Says. Could the same dad with the somewhat foul mouth and no filter really write a book befitting such a bucolic cover?
English Professor Samuel Zelinsky's wife Nora has just died of cancer. Before her death, she made Sam promise to return to the hills of Kentucky where he spent part of his youth. Sam has never really talked about those years, growing up as the son of sharecroppers, but somehow Nora knew he had unfinished business. And Sam honours that promise.
As Sam tours through his childhood haunts, the narrative switches back to 1945 and we meet ten year old Sam and his soon to be best friend Fred Cody Mulligan. Halpern does an admirable job in bringing this time and space to life. His descriptive prose bring to life the croak of frogs, the sweetness of an apple and the coolness of a mountain stream. But not everything is idealic - there is something evil lurking around the bottomless Blue Hole. Local superstition says it's the devil, but the boys find evidence that the evil is human. This event is the catalyst for what transpires, shapes and changes the lives of Sam, Fred and their two friends. For me, A Far Piece to Canaan had a very 'Stand By Me' feel to it.
We are transported back and forth from past to present as Sam tries to come to terms with his actions in the past and make reparations in the present.
About halfway through the book, I wondered about there really being Jewish sharecroppers in Kentucky in the 1940s. It was only as I searched our more about the author that I discovered that this was truly Sam Halpern's life. He was that Jewish sharecropper's kid in Kentucky. (Read the full interview here at Tablet Magazine.) And upon discovering that I looked at the book with a different set of eyes in the second half.
For Halpern is writing what he knows, what he lived and what he remembers. "Like every novel, it’s a mixture of fact and fiction. Much of the description of central Kentucky and the life of the sharecroppers are real." It is this 'insider' knowledge that gave the book such a real feel.
I enjoyed the character of Sam and his description of day to day life. The supporting cast of characters were just as well drawn. I did have a bit of problem accepting the reason the boys 'won't tell', as well as Sam's relationship with Ben and the need to keep it a secret.
Some of the vernacular used was easy to decipher. Hit'll for It will I got, wudn't for would not, but some words I had to guess at. Hun'ney for honey? It is only used by one ten year old boy talking to the other and seemed a bit odd. It seemed a bit hit or miss, with some words that would be easily contracted being spelled out fully such as old (ole) and just (jes'). Minor quibble.
For this reader, the best part of the book was set in the past. I found the 'redemption' part of the story in the last few chapters didn't hold my interest as well (I thought it was a bit too saccharine)
All in all, an admirable debut. And much different than I expected! Read an excerpt of A Far Piece to Canaan.
You can find Sam Halpern on Facebook.
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