Lowell Prins and Romey Guttner are 13-year-olds about as different as night and day. And yet they are best friends, living on opposite sides of the small town of Easton, Wisconsin, close to the Lake Michigan shoreline. It’s the late 1950s, an era of relative stability when the middle class was still growing, church was a part of most people’s lives, and a boy’s summer was devoted to exploration, friends, picking beans, and pranks.
Lowell’s father is known as something of a Christian saint, involved in all things church, never raising his voice, never striking out physically. Romey’s father is rude, vulgar, heavy-handed (literally) with the discipline for his son and his wife. Lowell’s father works in a professional job in Easton; Romey’s father is on strike at a plant in the larger town of Brandon, some 10 miles away.
What happens with Lowell and Romey in that summer, and what happens with their families and the larger community, is the story of James Calvin Schaap’s novel Romey’s Place, first published in 1999 and reissued in 2007. It is a coming-of-age novel, but it is more than that – a meditation on adolescence, friendship, faith, loss, and fathers. And it is a novel that succeeds at all of these things.
Romey’s Place is far from being simply a nostalgic look backward at a time when life seemed simple and (for many of us) golden. It could have been easily that and nothing more. To those of us raised in that era, it is wonderfully familiar – looking for animals along streams and canals; wandering in the woods; discovering scary things to do; Bible Camp; trying to act 17 when you’re only 13 and largely failing.
|James Calvin Schaap|
But by weaving family violence and dysfunction and labor and union troubles through the story, the novel leaves nostalgia behind and instead becomes how two boys are rather suddenly forced to grow up, and the roles they play in the adult dramas unfolding around them. It is also about what two good friends learn from each other one summer that will shape them the rest of their lives.
Schaap in an emeritus professor of literature and writing at Dordt College in Sioux City, Iowa. He’s a novelist and short story writer, and has also written several devotional books. His most recent book is Reading Mother Teresa: A Calvinist looks lovingly at “the little bride of Christ.” He blogs at Stuff in the Basement.
Romey’s Place is one of those rare things, a “Christian novel” that transcends its genre and leaving its readers wiser and reflective.
Top photograph by Yinan Chen via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.