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The Growing Seasons: An American Boyhood Before the War by Samuel Hynes


Rating: (Recommended)


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If you’re looking to read an upbeat memoir, pick up a copy of Samuel Hynes, The Growing Seasons. In this fine, short book, Hynes covers the early years of his life, until he leaves home to join the military. We’re all familiar with the generalities: the Depression made for hard times, but we were happy even though we didn’t have much. The specifics for Hynes are a delight to read. He takes us into the stories of an enchanted childhood, with just the right balance of mischief and struggle. In Hynes’ fine writing style, the pages fly by, and when you reach the last page, you’ll wish there was more to read. Here’s an excerpt 6 (pp. 114-5) that describes a special place for young Sam:

The attic was my private place. Nobody else went there; the windows were never opened, and the air was still, like the air in a church when there's no service going on, and the sounds of the street below rose faintly, like whispered secrets. I spent a lot of time up there by myself, playing elaborate games that I made up, with trucks and tin soldiers, or just looking out of the window. From that high place I could be a watcher of the street. I watched the neighbors coming and going, the Genakopolises from the house on the corner, and Miss La France next door,, and Charlie Butts, and Mrs. Ford, and Alf De Smidt, and Mr. Delmore and his black-haired daughter, Denise. I watched the mailman go down the street, and the milkman, and the man who delivered laundry. And the strangers to the block: the man with the goiter, and the woman who always wore white (even in winter), and the old lady with the blue-tongued chow on a leash.

The attic was where things were stored: suitcases (my father called them "grips")—cracked cow-hide, woven straw, cardboard painted to resemble leather—the tired companions of two families' poor journeyings; and cardboard boxes tied with string and labeled in Nellie's handwriting: "old photos' "children's clothes" "wedding dress." And a dressmaker's dummy, a torso covered in white muslin representing a woman's body, but nothing like the shape of any female in our house. All that stuff was history. You could tell the story of our family lives from what was there, pushed back under the eaves.                             

My father gave me a Lionel electric train for Christmas when I was twelve, and set it up in the attic on a trestle table that was our old ping-pong table turned upside down, so that its top was a flat plywood surface with a wooden edge round the sides like a wall. On the table he mounted the tracks, carefully tacking down lengths of gray inner tube for a roadbed, and connected switches and signals that turned from green to red when the train passed, and a control for separating cars from the engine and for backing the train up, and a crossing gate that closed when the train went by. I painted the table grass-green, and stained bits of sponge green and stuck them around for trees; I built a station and little houses out of cardboard, and made a sand road for the crossing gate. And so gradually the tabletop became a small world entire in itself, a private reality where the only sound was the small, companionable clickety-clickety of the train running on its track, around, and around, and around.

Even after I stopped playing with the train because I was too old for such toys, I liked knowing that it was up there in that other world that my father and I had built, and that I could reenter that world if I wanted to. Then Nellie sold it. "You never used it," she said in her practical way, missing entirely the difference between using and having. I felt my loss bitterly. It wasn't grief, exactly, not like the feeling when someone you know dies; more like what you feel when a favorite thing is smashed, or swept away by a stream, or dropped from a moving car onto a highway, or just left behind in a place you'll never go back to. Something that was yours is gone forever; and if that can happen, if this thing you treasured can be taken from you, then everything can.

The memoir genre, in the right hands, brings wisdom to readers. This excerpt about grief early in life shows the wisdom Hynes presents for readers in The Growing Seasons. If there’s only one memoir you decide to read this year, you’ll be glad you chose this one.

Steve Hopkins, April 19, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the May 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Growing Seasons.htm


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