Harry Crews

A Childhood

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A Childhood Summary

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In his memoir, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place (1978), American author Harry Crews chronicles the first six years of his life growing up in rural Georgia during the Great Depression. Kirkus Reviews called A Childhood “a mottled, textured reminiscence of seasonal rituals, periodic tragedy, and indelible coincidence.”

On June 7, 1935, Harry Crews is born in Alma, Georgia, a small rural community located in Bacon County. His parents are desperately poor tenant farmers struggling to survive amid the Great Depression. When Harry is only two years old, his father dies of a heart attack, leaving his mother in an even more desperate condition than before. In need of a partner, his mother marries her dead husband’s brother, a man Crews says, “might have been a good father had he not been a brutal drunk.” For much of his childhood, Harry has no idea this man is not his biological father. Harry’s stepfather also frequently reaches for his shotgun when drinking and in arguments with his wife: “I knew it was not unusual for a man to shoot at his wife. It was only unusual if he hit her.”

As the Depression rages on, devastating Bacon County as it does so many other communities across the United States, the Crewses live a hardscrabble existence: “The world that circumscribed the people I come from had so little margin for error, for bad luck, that when something went wrong, it almost always brought down something else with it.” Crews details some of the idiosyncratic characters in his community and the lengths they go to stay afloat without starving. Auntie, an old woman on a neighboring farm works miracles in the kitchen with possum meat. “The Jew,” a dark-suited traveling con man, like others in the area, concocts schemes such as selling old mules on the verge of death by making them look younger by capping and painting their teeth white. Others in the area suffer from mental illness, like Uncle Elsie who speaks in tongues.

At the age of five, Harry begins to suffer violent seizures, signaling the onset of polio. With little money for treatment, Harry suffers severe leg cramps that cause his heels to draw up backward until they touch his thighs. The doctors who do visit him tell him he will never walk again. For a year, Harry is virtually immobile except by dragging himself along the ground with his hands.  In addition to the pain caused by polio, the disease makes Harry feel alien to his family and community. He comes to despise the way others look at him. People from around the state come to gawk at his physical deformities: “I hated it and dreaded it and was humiliated by it. I felt how lonely and savage it was to be a freak.” After a year of this hellish lifestyle, Harry unexpectedly makes a full recovery.

Another tragedy, however, is not far off for Harry. At the height of the hog-killing season in 1940, neighbors arrive from all over the Okefenokee Swamp area to fill the Crews’ smokehouse with a year’s worth of meat. Harry watches as men slaughter the hogs, making parts into sausages and headcheese. He recalls “the steaming smell of excrement and the oily, flatulent odor of intestines and the heavy sweetness of the blood.” As the men go about their grim work, the children play a game called Pop the Whip in which children hold hands and move in the motion of a giant human whip. Harry is jerked loose from the line of children and falls into a vat of boiling water used to scald the flesh off the pigs. He is only in the vat for a moment, but it’s long enough to cause severe burns over most of his body: “I reached over and touched my right hand with my left, and the whole thing came off like a wet glove. I mean, the skin on the top of my wrist and the back of my hand, along with my fingernails, all just turned loose and slid down on the ground.” In an attempt to help, an onlooker covers Harry with a sheet. This, however, has the effect of sticking to his scalding body. The only reason Harry lives through the ordeal is that his head does not go under the water.

As he slowly heals, Harry is unable to leave his bed. Just like when he suffered from polio, Harry once again feels “how lonely and savage it is to be a freak.” His only solace is the Sears-Roebuck catalog, the only piece of literature in his home other than the Bible. “The people in the catalog had no such hurts. They were not only whole, they had all their arms and legs and toes and eyes on their unscarred bodies, but they were also beautiful. Their legs were straight and their heads were never bald and on their faces were looks of happiness, even joy, looks that I never saw much of in the faces of the people around me.” Harry begins to write stories in his head about these catalog models, planting the seeds for his later career as a successful novelist.

A Childhood is an intense and often grotesque work of realism about growing up in one of the hardest times and places in 20th-century America.