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Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter - Tom Franklin

M, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, crooked letter, crooked letter, I, humpback, humpback, I.--How southern children are taught to spell Mississippi

Tom Franklin

My wife's family is from Prentiss, Mississippi not far from where the action of this book takes place. When her grandmother died a few years ago we went down for the funeral. This was my first time in Mississippi and I remember a couple of things about the experience. First, this is small town USA and there were two funeral homes. One for black people and one for white people. When you ain't from around there you might accidently go to the wrong one. After the funeral we ended up back at grandmother's place eating and drinking ice tea. The women stayed out in the kitchen except for when they were bringing more food around or filling up my ice tea. I swear my ice tea never got more than inch down from the rim. The men asked me questions. I, like most people, don't have any problem talking about myself. One thing they were really concerned about was how the South was perceived by a Yankee such as myself. I trotted out my bona fide that my gg grandfather Keeten was a Confederate soldier from Virginia. To people in Mississippi Virginia is Northern, so that bought me barely a dollop of legitimacy. My wife had warned me not to be outspoken politically. These weren't blue dog Democrats, but deep red Mississippi mud Republicans, and so I skated over the issues that I knew would cause a ruckus. They insisted to me how much Mississippi had changed, as if I were an ambassador from the North, and would go home and tell everyone that the South has become progressive. I agree, no doubt, the South had progressed in the last 150 years. The people were super. Everyone I met was sincere and every sentence was scented with Southern charm, but two different funeral homes tells me that the South still has some wrinkles that need smoothed out. I loved my time down there and can't wait to take a family vacation through Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

I know, I know I'm supposed to be writing a book review. The location of this book just brought up some memories that I wanted to share with my friends on goodreads.

In junior high I was the kid that ordered too many books from Scholastic. I can still feel the shame reddening my neck and my cheeks as I walked up to the teacher's desk to get my book stack that was larger than the rest of the class put together. I was only someone's best friend when they needed help with their homework. So I did identify with Larry Ott. I was undersized too, one of the smallest guys in my class. I wore glasses and scurried around like a rabbit between classes.

Small towns are tough and small schools are even tougher. There is no escape. In big schools you can blend in better, and also with a larger population you increase your chances in finding a "freak" like yourself. When people extol the virtues of their small school system I always think to myself they're great if your kid is designated normal.

Larry Ott gets accused of a crime, a girl is missing. He is in the frame. People aren't accusing him just because he is weird. Circumstantial evidence does make him a legitimate suspect. The problem is when he is cleared of all charges the town does not forget. Another person, maybe a person that sat at the cool kids table could have moved on with their lives with only a passing reference to the unfortunate circumstances. Not Larry, not Scary Larry. Unfortunately for Larry the people of his small town America did not like him. He had been weighed and measured and found to be too weird. When another girl goes missing Larry is the number one suspect because what lingers in everyone's mind is the unfinished business from the first missing girl. Sympathy for his plight is not offered. He is, as he has been his whole life, alone.

Silas "32" Jones is the closest Larry ever had to a friend. Their lives are entwined in a way that neither boy is fully aware of, yet there are phantom ghosts of information at the periphery of their consciousness that as more facts are revealed they don't question the results. They realize they've always known. When Larry lends Silas a rifle Silas becomes his friend for a short while. Silas likes the stories that Larry tells him from the pages of Stephen King, but refuses to even try to read a book. It is too much like school work. When Silas becomes a star short stop, known as 32 by everyone, Larry is just an embarrassment to him.

Silas will look back with more than a little regret that he didn't lay a friendly hand on Larry's shoulder or ask him to join in social activities. He was uniquely positioned to change Larry's life forever. His gift of athleticism empowered him to bring Larry into the social group. His offer of friendship would have forced people to see Larry differently.

By some quirk of fate I started growing. By the time I got to high school I had evolved from being one of the shortest people in my class to being the tallest person in my class. As it turned out I was coordinated enough to play sports and did well. Like Silas, when people would see me in the local diner or on the street or in the hallway they would call out my jersey number, 12. The people I needed so desperately when I was so lonely suddenly were my "best friends". It was simply ridiculous. I can score twenty points in a basketball game, and miraculously I am cured of being the number one class freak.

Growing up I was Silas and Larry. I understand all too well their fallacies and their insecurities. I felt Larry's burning shame as if my own cheeks were inflamed. I felt Silas's guilt as if it were resting on my own shoulders. Franklin keyed into elements that I have given a lot of thought to. The vocabulary is simple. You won't find yourself puzzling over word usage. This is not a knock against Franklin because this is a simple tale, and elevated language would have weighed down the intent. I can tell from reading other reviews that this book had a profound impact on people. It certainly made me plow over old ground. My one complaint is that I feel that Franklin could have put more meat on the bone. It does not have the complexity of a book that I could wholeheartedly agree is a modern classic. I'm looking forward to reading another book by Franklin called Hell at the Breech.