The Old Man and the Boy
© 1957 Robert Ruark
Of the various titles on my Classics Club Strikes back list, The Old Man and the Boy is something of an outlier; I’d venture to say that most people haven’t heard of it. I hadn’t heard of it until I started fishing for southern-lit reads that weren’t by William Faulkner. (Faulkner scares me.) I was charmed immediately by the preview I found online, and my entrancement only continued once it’d arrived in the mail. The book is semi-fictional, semi-memoir, and consists of vignettes from Ruark’s perspective recounting his grandfather’s (the Old Man) and his adventures together. The writing mixes nature writing with philosophy, and delivers a taste of Carolina country living in the 1920s, from ambling around in a Model T to hunting. In reading, one experiences the energy and wonder of youth and the wry humor and wisdom of age. It’s an extraordinarily engaging, lovely book to read, an instant favorite for me.
I commented to a friend as I was gushing about this title that it’s a little Aldous Leopold, and a little Rick Bragg. Although more than one year passes by throughout the stories, they’re arranged in such a way that we’re experiencing a year in the Carolina coastlands. Both the Old Man and the Boy are keen studiers of the natural world, and one of the Old Man’s common refrains is respect for the land and respect for the creatures in it. This respect isn’t just about stewardship, although it’s one of the reasons the Old Man teaches his grandson about conservation; it’s also the realization that you don’t know everything, and should tread softly. (When it comes to hunting quail, for instance, the Old Man believes an experienced dog should train a boy, and not the other way around.)
Although hunting excursions are the basis of most of the stories (they also fish), this is not a ‘hunting’ book, per se; sure, the boy learns what to look for and what not to do as far as hunting tactics and strategy go, but the Old Man is often philosophical as they walk and stalk together, giving advice and insight that applies equally in the field and in town. The boy is sometimes receptive to this advice, and sometimes he doesn’t know what to make of it; but he apparently remembered it. The Boy is very much like Tom Sawyer; eager to escape the schoolhouse, always ready to flee into the woods. The Tom Sawyer aspect extends to building a boat and taking off on his own, fishing and camping and not returning until late at night. The Boy couldn’t get away with that today; the neighbors would call the cops on the Old Man for letting the Boy leave his eyesight, and the boy wouldn’t want to touch one dead goose, let alone improvise a way of carrying home four. Although I appreciated this title most for the wonderful mix of adventure and advice about life, the entire historical context is worth appreciating on its own, as are the little stories the Boy mixes in. I would have never expected that moonshine was once an integral part of Holiness revivals. If they’d kept that particular practice, I might’ve had a lot more fun growing up in Holiness-Pentecostal circles!
I will be sharing passages from this book a little later, but this is one of those sticks-to-the-ribs kind of books, savory and warming.
Where the Red Fern Grows, Wilson Rawls