Wednesday, June 5, 2013

A Far Piece to Canaan - Sam Halpern

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?

Surprisingly, yes.

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.

Sam Halpern is the legendary father of Justin Halpern, author of the phenomenal #1 New York Times bestseller Sh*t My Dad Says. A professor of nuclear medicine, he lives in southern California.

You can find Sam Halpern on Facebook.

See what others on the TLC Book tour thought. Full schedule can be found here.


Becky LeJeune said...

I'm reading this one right now and absolutely - surprisingly - loving it! I definitely had no idea what to expect out of Justin Halpern's father!

bermudaonion said...

I'm just fascinated that the author is Justin's dad. I need to read this!

Andrea @ Cozy Up said...

Wow, I don't think I would expect a book like this from Same Halpern. I'm even more interested to know that much of this book comes from his real life experiences. This sounds like such an amazing book! And I love that it has a Stand By Me feel to it! Definitely adding this to the list :)

Unknown said...

The cover of this book makes me think about the movie "Stand by Me." Sounds like a good book. Thanks for sharing your review.

trish said...

How fascinating! That's what I love about fiction -- you often learn a little tidbit about something that you wouldn't have learned otherwise.

Thanks for being on the tour!

Luanne said...

Becky - surprising wasn't it!?

Kathy and Andrea - completely not what I thought it was going to be!

Gina - the cover is very reminiscent of the movie

Trish - who knew!?

Fergie D said...

Great review, I agree with the bulk of your views, and especially enjoy books where the author writes from personal experience. And thanks for your reference to the article in The Tablet - you prompted me to stop by there and it was also a good read. I noticed one of the posters there said that his son Justin's book about his dad is being reviewed on the Book Report radio show this weekend. Surprisingly, even though I've read Sam Halpern's debut, I haven't ever read his son's book about him! I frequently listen to the radio show, so will make a point of catching this one - WOR710 on Sat eve, or you can find out their other station guides on their website -(bookreportradio[dot]com) for others wanting to get the full picture!