Houghton Mifflin 2009
Although this is technically a “young adult” novel (like the author’s first book, The Hanging Woods), Gray Baby managed to hold my interest from start to finish, and then some. It’s the story of a boy, Clifton Carlson, who is growing up at difficult point of the South’s evolution. His father, who was black, is beaten to death by white cops on Clifton’s eighth birthday. Because Clifton’s mother is white (and a drunk, suffering from depression), the boy, now sixteen, doesn’t feel that he fits in. Or rather, he doesn’t see himself as being any race at all (although the high school bully calls him “Skunk”). But because of his mother’s problems, he’s often on his own, and that leads him to imagine what the world is like beyond his own neighborhood. Eventually, that curiosity leads him to meet Swamper, an old white man who lives down on the river. Swamper is kind to him and Clifton is able to help the old man catch and sell catfish.
But there are complications, naturally. A little girl in town goes missing, and Clifton is a witness, which puts him in danger. Because the mother is a mess, and no help at all, Clifton runs to Swamper, who turns out to be something other than what he has claimed to be.
The book is set in Southwest Virginia (where the author lives) on the New River. It’s a beautiful area, and the novel captures the landscape and the people well. But the book also captures the psychological landscape—the shifting race relations as well as the tensions between classes. The brutal killing in the novel’s opening pages is a shocking reminder of what people are capable of, and the suspense that carries the reader through the remainder of the book is built on the fear things haven’t changed all that much.
While the plot is filled with satisfying twists, the real enjoyment here is the character portrait of Clifton and his growing relationship with Swamper. Clifton is struggling. He’s doing his best, but given his background and his mother’s problems, the deck is stacked against him. But he’s a good kid—look for his connection to Bosco, the neighbor’s dog—and the reader is pulling for him all the way. He’s not perfect, either, but his flaws are credible and understandable. Swamper, too, is a round character with plenty of nicks and bruises, and he sure knows his catfish. (If there was research involved in getting the details of Swamper’s fishing just right, it must have been enjoyable.)
All in all, it’s a terrific book. Buy it for some teenager you know. But read it before you hand it over.