Grover, who lives in the Montford neighborhood of Asheville and is named for Thomas Wolfe’s brother who died when Wolfe was little more than a toddler, has just lost his own mother, killed by a car while walking the family dog. Grover’s father is the director of the Thomas Wolfe house, a good man grieving his dead wife, beset by problems at work — the city is threatening to cut off some of the funding — and at home, where his efforts to care for Grover and Sudie, Grover’s sister, are half-hearted and removed. Meanwhile, Grover finds solace in his Bamboo Forest, a rough stand of bamboo where he and Sudie spend time playing and where Grover weaves tapestries from the bamboo.
When the Roundtrees — Leila, a widow who lost her husband in Iraq, and her two children, Emma Lee and Clay — move into the neighborhood, the Johnstons quickly become their friends. Hayes creates a deep empathy for all these characters as their attraction for one another grows, leading us through the tangled emotions of loss and love. Grover also finds himself mourning the impending loss of his beloved Bamboo Forest, which is owned by a city commissioner who intends to destroy the bamboo and sell off the lot.
Though marketed toward adolescents, What I Came To Tell You (the title appears on the cover of the book in lower-case) is a book that should appeal to readers of all ages. Hays has a gift for tight, concise writing, but even more importantly, for sorting out the vagaries of the human heart. In Grover, he gives readers a boy who deeply misses his dead mother, has artistic talent but is struggling at school, finds himself dealing with the despair of his father and with the grief of his little sister, and is becoming attracted to Emma Lee. Hays does fine work in giving us a full picture of Grover, injecting both humor and pathos into the boy’s situation.
What I Came To Tell You also presents a fine portrait of Asheville, particularly the Montford neighborhood. Hays describes various streets and landmarks with loving accuracy (alas, Reader’s Corner has now closed its doors), and makes the people of this special city come alive as well. He cooks up a rich stew of personalities and beliefs — Grover’s mother, for example, died a Buddhist while Emma Lee is an evangelical Christian — which reveals how both Asheville, and by extension, the South, are evolving. What I Came To Tell You helps us to see that despite the many cultural changes of the last 40 or 50 years, the South still contains a personality different from other regions of the country.
Finally, What I Came To Tell You is a sort of love song to Thomas Wolfe. (Even the title alludes to Wolfe’s short story, “I Have A Thing To Tell You”). With Grover we visit Wolfe’s grave, and later we tour the Wolfe home under the guidance of Grover’s father. Though regarded during his lifetime as a great American writer, and though he influenced dozens of other writers right down to our own day, Wolfe’s reputation since his death has diminished. Perhaps What I Came To Tell You will persuade those readers of the novel who have not read Wolfe to pick up Look Homeward, Angel or Of Time And The River, and give him a try.
What I Came To Tell You is a fine, heart-felt book, a beautifully told story of love, redemption, second chances and understanding. It reminds all of us, young and old, that the grief and hardship brought to us in living can often lead us into the mystery and wonder of life itself.
Some of us are suckers for books of quotations (One such sucker was Winston Churchill, who wrote, in reference to himself, that “it is a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations.” My continued enjoyment of such books may mark me as an uneducated man.) In Don’t Forget to Sing in the Lifeboats (ISBN 978-0-7611-5525-6, $8.95), Kathryn and Ross Petras give us a collection of inspirational sayings from people who have attended the largest educational institution in the world: the school of hard knocks. Here we get a number of sustaining adages. In case readers are feeling a little dismal about their lives, here is some medicine for you:
• Winston Churchill: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
• Ernest Hemingway: “Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.”
• Alice Walker: “I try to teach my heart to want nothing it can’t have.”
• Annie Dillard: “You can’t test courage cautiously.”
• George Orwell: “Men can only be happy when they do not assume that the object of life is happiness.”
• John Wayne: “Life is tough, but it’s tougher when you’re stupid.”
• Jean Kerr: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, it’s just possible you haven’t grasped the situation.”
• Epictetus: “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
• And finally, from baseball great Leroy “Satchel” Paige: “Never let your head hang down. Never give up and sit down and grieve. Find another way. And don’t pray when it rains if you don’t pray when the sun shines.”