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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Fourth Grade, a New Novel part 2

Updated: May 11

A rediscovery while reading, The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come. No wonder I begged Uncle Bryon to play "You'll Never Walk Alone," on the piano whenever I visited Grandmother Wilson's house. I did not understand Byron's strangeness until decades later when I saw "The Rain Man." Yet always he kindly indulged my need for Chad's song, even though it came from the musical, Carousel. Chad, a waif, a quintessential survivor, "of brave, sunny cheer, and simple self-trust that won people to him."

The novel begins when Aunt Jane and Uncle Jim are dead from cholera. Greedy Nathan is coming to claim Chad as his indentured servant. Chad flees with Jack, a sheep dog of "perfect faith and patience." Jack, the little shepherd of kingdom come, a strand in the novel from beginning to end. What a hook for me at 10. Two years earlier we had given away our beloved pointer Rex. New landlords disallowed pets. At novel's end when Chad rides Westward and tells Jack to go home to Ma Turner, I would have cried hopelessly. Got a little teary the other day, too!

Admittedly, the novel depends heavily on contrived coincidences. Escaping evil Nathan, Chad journeys into an unknown Kentucky world. "The first time Chad ever thought seriously about himself, or wondered who he was, or whence he came." By novel's end, he is "a gentleman born," related to Major Buford, his adopted father in Lexington. The numerous veiled references to illegitimacy would have escaped me in fourth grade. Ironically, the word 'bastard' is not used in the novel, considering the other words which are used. I offer this caveat! Some language in the novel flunks today's PC test. "Black little paws does not refer to a dog, nor does "wooly head" describe a black poodle. The N word abounds, which would not have bothered me at 10 because Grandmother Wilson used the word matter-of-factly. She, a Southerner, whose longing for Arkansas never ebbed, shared a Kentuckian belief: "If slaves had to be, then the fetters were forged light and hung loose." I have not forgotten a fierce argument with Grandmother about my hero, Abraham Lincoln. Grandmother believed his Emancipation Proclamation was wrong. How could that be true in a kind-hearted woman?

In the last third of the novel, "the waiting storm of fire," which hero Chad must walk through, is the Civil War. What will Chad decide to do? If he chooses to wear Blue, he will sacrifice his relationship with beloved Major Buford, lose General Dean's respect, plus the love of Dean's daughter, Margaret, and be hated by his entire mountain family, the Turners. Ultimately, Chad's conscience commands "Union" not division. What remained with me from fourth grade onward was the Dean family torn asunder: Dan, the hot-headed passionate Southerner, Harry, the abolitionist; two brothers on opposite sides of the war, divided like Kentucky, divided like the nation. Pages 196 to 202 are well-worth reading to understand Chad's decision.

John Fox Jr. writes wonderful narration. The dialogue? Well, "hit" often a grind, and Fox "surtinely" lacks Mark Twain's genius to "ketch" vernacular. At 10 I would not have noticed. And if I missed many details and larger meanings, I did carry away Fox's vision; that if you have heart and courage, you will be saved, whether man or dog. My favorite scene in revisiting the novel is when Jack is on trial, accused of killing a neighbor's sheep dog. In childhood I would not have known that in the Middle Ages animals were put on trial. Chad heroically saves Jack because he has gained education and experience in Lexington and brings this knowledge to Jack's trial in the mountains between two opposing clans. In fourth grade, I knew nothing about author John Fox Jr. Now I know he was a Harvard grad, New York journalist, Harper Weekly's Cuba correspondent, a Teddy Roosevelt Rough Rider, and successful novelist. The 1903 "Shepherd" remained on the NY Times best seller list a long time, as did his 1908, Trail of the Lonesome Pine. Fox died in 1919, age 57, from pneumonia. His museum is in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, which I plan to visit one day.

If a mental door closed on math and numbers in fourth grade, my mind through literature began mapping words and other worlds. And I owe so much to the Fullerton Public Library. To be continued…

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