Friday, November 2, 2012

David Gerard’s “God’s Acres”

The older I become, the more I see my own story in the story of others. I didn’t grow up on a farm; I wasn’t one of six or seven children; my family wasn’t Roman Catholic. But I was a child during the same years as author David Gerard, the years of Sputnik and NASA, of Kennedy and Nixon, of the Cold War and the first Barbie dolls and the peak of rock and roll before it became rock.

That is perhaps why Gerard’s novel God’s Acres resonates so deeply. It’s familiar territory – the late 1950s. Edward Szczykiewicz, known as Bud, is a second grader at a Catholic school in St. Joseph, Missouri, and he tells the story of his family, and specifically his mother, Martha, in 1959 and 1960, the time when Martha beings to disintegrate mentally.

Martha is a worker, an almost tireless worker. She’s convinced her hardware-store-owning husband to move to a rather ramshackle farm, and she applies her energy to planting and cleaning and cooking and children and being a Catholic in the pre-Vatican II church. She holds her world together with work, but she is wearing her family and herself out.

Martha’s husband takes refuge at the hardware store. The oldest, Bobby, joins the Army. Clara becomes pregnant and is sent off temporarily to a convent. Terry falls in love with a Protestant boy. Bud gets expelled from the Catholic school. Martha becomes pregnant herself with her seventh child. Nothing is happening the way Martha believes it should happen, and she begins to unravel.

Because the story is told from the perspective of a child, the reader experiences all of the joys and terrors of childhood, some of which is laugh-out-loud funny. Gerard effectively uses humor to keep the story from tipping into a depressing account of a dysfunctional family. Instead, it becomes something more universal – the story of family dealing with personal, community and national change.

Gerard introduces each chapter with a brief story of Martha’s condition in the present – she’s developed Alzheimer’s disease, and she’s dying. He also intersperses summary statements of news events at the time throughout the text, which has the effect of centering the story in time and simultaneously adding the cushion of distance between the story and the reader. A third element of the story is the use of lines and references to Shakespeare’s King Lear, although the madness in Bud’s story belongs to the family queen, not the king.

God’s Acres is an engaging story that becomes a riveting story, pulling the reader into a family’s drama, dysfunction, and joy and laughter alongside sadness and death.

God’s acres was published by PenUltimate Press in 2010, and received the Oklahoma Book Award in 2011.It is one of PenUltimate’s Missouri Lives Series.

1 comment:

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