WALTER D. EDMONDS was born in 1903 and began writing in his twenties. Over the years, he has produced many books, including Drums Along the Mohawk in 1936 and Chad Hanna in 1940. In 1975, he won a National Book Award for Bert Breen's Barn. Now in his eighties, he has written a new novel called The South African Quirt, and it has the look of a classic.
This is not to be regarded as a good book, however, merely because its author is advanced in years. Books are good or bad, and this is a very good one. Its portrayal of a boy's rite of passage into young adulthood is remarkable because it is so sensitively and convincingly done, and not because its author is so far distanced from his own childhood. But it certainly does seem true that, at least in Edmonds' case, age has brought a wonderful wisdom.
The novel is very short, and its focus is very narrow. It is set in the summer of 1915 on a farm in the remote stretches of upper New York State. Natty Dunston is 12 years old and spending the summer alone with his father, since his sickly mother has returned to their home in New York City. His father -- 64 years of age and quietly, stolidly tyrannical -- fills the boy's thoughts. Natty has some friends -- a neighboring farm family and his father's own employes -- but, throughout the summer, his principal source of companionship and comfort is his precocious and bumptious puppy named Bingo.
A lovable boy with a mean father? A cute little puppy named Bingo? Is the book as sentimental as a bare outline makes it sound? Not a bit of it.
Edmonds succeeds, with uncanny sureness, in taking us inside the mind of young Natty and in giving us a moving and vivid boy's-eye viewof the world. And what a threatening world it can be when everything you're doing is being done for the first time, when everyone but you seems to know what he's about, when you know perfectly well what's expected of you but can't bring yourself to do it . . . and especially when your father, who absolutely rules your world, can twist logic so that you are guilty even when innocent and wrong even when right. No wonder Natty performs a little ritual before going to bed each night, transforming his bedroom "into a fort -- a fort still under siege, to be sure, by the menaces of darkness, but one in which he could hope to survive until the graying dawn began to show in his east window."
NATTY's father is a hard man who likes every element of his life to be regular, predictable, and "familiar." He likes a cold baked apple for his breakfast every morning, and it had better be there. He wants the mail picked up at the same time every day. Without even examining the thought, he thinks he knows exactly what is right and best for his own life and everyone else's. And what is right and best definitely does not include wayward little boys and precocious puppies. Seen through Natty's eyes, the father looms larger and more menacing as the otherwise warm and pleasant summer lengthens. If there are happy days of playing in the oat sheaves with Bingo, there are many other days when Natty dreads his father's displeasure at some imagined transgression.
The quirt of the title is a 30-inch leather crop, too savage, it appears, to be used on a horse, that is sent to Natty's father by a friend. Prominently displayed in the house, the quirt becomes a visible sign of the constant threat posed to Natty's precarious safety. One day, Natty knows, it will be used. The only question is how long he can avoid it.
At the center of the story is Natty's failure to share his father's view of the world, and his resistance to seeing the world as an adversary. He is too young, too curious, too unspoiled by life to turn inward and create a private demesne of his existence, as his father has done. Natty is still turned outward, eager to explore and embrace the world, and struggling to learn how. The ending of the book -- in the manner of real life -- is a mixture of triumph and sadness. It is touching in the best way: it is honest.
The South African Quirt is a modest novel with a quiet voice, but it has the look and feel of real life. Technically, it shows the mastery of a lifetime's craftmanship, and the publisher has thoughtfully enhanced the effect with a handsome jacket and nostalgic illustrations. Only time will tell, but I suspect this is the kind of book one can reread often in a lifetime.