“Fearfully and Wonderfully Made: A Novel”
Author: Donald Jordan
Publisher: Negative Capability Press
Price: $18.99 (Paper)
Novel Set in Columbus, Georgia Evokes a 1940s Childhood
I probably shouldn’t say so, because it may start a cascade of similar letters, but a letter from the small press Negative Capability in Mobile persuaded me to have a look at this novel.
Donald Jordan, pronounced like the football coach, “Jerdan,” is 85 years old. He had published a western novel 50 years ago—“Trail to Lometa”—and this is I think his first literary fiction. Many readers will recognize that the title comes from Psalms, 139: 14: “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful. I know that full well.”
This book seems to me very autobiographical, basically a memoir. It is, however in the form of a novel, a report on Jordan’s childhood simply told in the voice of Skeeter Harding, age ten.
Skeeter is growing up in Columbus, Georgia, probably late 1940s, and through his innocent voice we get a pretty good picture of life there.
The Hardings are typical, white, lower middle-class people, with no African-Americans as friends or neighbors. Jack, the janitor at Skeeter’s school, is the only black character. Skeeter, like Huck Finn, has a sound heart and has not yet learned race prejudice.
Skeeter attends fifth grade, likes school and has some appreciation of how earnest and dedicated his teacher is. Miss Barton loves literature. She reads to her students, often from “The Adventures of Remi.” She writes aphorisms each day on the blackboard. Over time Skeeter sees how seemingly banal advice like “Look before you leap” or “A stitch in time saves nine,” can be usefully applied.
She seems strict, but although he is no genius, he senses she sees something in him.
Skeeter is smallish, not an athlete, but has a certain toughness. He has an arduous paper route after school every day, in rain, sleet, and heat, and the money he makes helps the family a little.
His bike, an old and decrepit Schwinn, is practically a character in the book, as it breaks down and fails him many times. He desperately needs a new one.
Skeeter’s dad is a clerk in a hardware store, and under a lot of stress. The owner of the store bribes inspectors at Fort Benning and sells inferior paint. If the owner, Mr. Wilson, is caught, Mr. Harding will be jobless and jobs are hard to find.
The family is perfectly respectable, living in a little house on modest Schaul Street, but Skeeter’s older brother, Mat, is dating Margaret, a daughter of Columbus society. Margaret’s family has money and belongs to the country club. She drives a newish Cadillac convertible and her parents really do not want her involved with Mat, who’s not one of their set. Jordon shows us a certain amount of “elitism and snobbery.”
Mat is a good fellow, about 16. He plays trumpet in the Columbus High marching band. He defends his little brother against bullies and has good stuff in him, but although a sentimental reader might believe that love will conquer all, in a small Southern city like Columbus, the class structure is obvious and strict and you know love can’t thrive there.
One thread that runs through is the haunted house or, more specifically old, decaying garage that Skeeter must pass each day. Skeeter peeks in and may have seen body parts. Frightened, he is also intrigued and one day leaves a note: “I’m not afraid of you.” The return message is “Hello Skeeter.”
Even if this actually happened in Jordan’s childhood, it still too directly evokes “Mockingbird’s” Boo Radley.
Jordan includes some chunks of Columbus history and geography that readers might enjoy. There is a character addicted to opium, I think, and the boys discuss, as boys do, whether there is a God or not and if so, what kind. Skeeter’s innocence is damaged when he sees the youth minister kissing a girl who is not his wife, and a neighbor seems to have a mistress with a child.
“Fearfully and Wonderfully Made” is straightforwardly told, so much so that no critical unpacking is called for. Skeeter tells his story as a ten-year-old might, out loud, without much introspection or scenic development.
But it has a certain freshness and the reader is convinced that this was in fact life in Columbus, Georgia in the days after WWII.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.