Out of the memory of his own childhood, spent in the same Georgia county where he now practices medicine, Ferrol Sams at age 60 has fashioned a first novel remarkable both for its humor and its sustained and detailed picture of a mischievous southern farmboy's life during the Great Depression. It was a life of relative security, since any poverty the Sams family may have felt was cloaked in fierce pride. But it was also one of isolation and hard work -- an environment perfect for nurturing an independent, and ambitious, young spirit.
The main narrative component of "Run With the Horsemen" is the escapade, the scrape, and Sams relates each one with relish, flair and irony. He is a good storyteller, but then southerners of his generation were raised to be raconteurs. The good story has traditionally been a staple in southern social intercourse, providing entertainment and keeping conversation away from the potentially dangerous territory of debate or serious discussion where tempers might erupt and cause embarrassment.
Southern yarns, whether they be about Brer Rabbit or "Damn Yankees," traditionally follow a common thread. The underdog triumphs over the oppressor, usually by making him look foolish through a combination of wit and cunning. It is a pattern repeated again and again in "Run With the Horsemen."
Early in the novel is a typical incident. The protagonist -- known variously as "the boy," "Sambo" and "Little Porter"--smears fresh chicken droppings on the forefinger of a despised uncle who is taking a postprandial snooze, then tickles him vigorously under the nose with a feather. The results are predictable. "Even as he ran . . . he could hear the roars from the bewildered and sickened enemy behind him."
Eventually, the boy marks as his arch adversary the school principal, Mr. Gill. Sams' description of him, as of most of the novel's characters, is all the more devastating for its restraint.
"Whenever someone presented him with a problem, he stood with his right hand in his pocket and jingled his keys while he rocked from one foot to the other . . . When particularly thoughtful, he would rhythmically loosen his bottom plate, thrust it forward with his tongue until it made his lower lip bulge, and then return it with a little click to its original position. The effect of the clicking teeth, the jingling keys, the rocking shoes, and the shifting eyes was one of such Olympian detachment that most petitioners were hypnotized into mistaking aloofness for intelligence."
Mr. Gill and the boy regard each other with mutual enmity, but it is the boy, of course, who finally triumphs.
According to a "conversation" with Sams released by his Atlanta publisher, the impetus for his novel was his children's and grandchildren's ignorance of life in the South before it became part of the "Sunbelt." And Sams details the tasks and customs that defined and determined agrarian life in Georgia: the backbreaking jobs of chopping cotton, processing sugar cane, managing recalcitrant mules, the tedium of milking cows before and after school. But the subject that is unavoidably central to the book, and one that Sams, perhaps because he's a good southerner who avoids controversy, finds most difficult to confront, is that of race relations.
Blacks play major roles in his story. The descendants of the boy's great-grandfather's slaves still live on the family farm, now as sharecroppers, and one of them he genuinely counts as his best friend and soul mate. Although he is smart enough to figure out that there are "only superficial differences in the former [slavery] and present [sharecropping] systems," he otherwise seems unaware of the moral implications of the social order surrounding him. He is an unquestioning participant in the game of white supremacy.
It's a game with strict rules, and it is a system that makes the boy, regardless of his age, both a boss and a father to those of a different color. Only once does he become explicitly aware that the racial customs he takes for granted have an unattractive underside.
Near the novel's end he decides to overturn a barrel full of fermenting and nearly lethal sugar-cane mill waste which an old black man has been drinking far too much of. As he is accomplishing his task, the man arrives on the scene, first imploring him not to deprive him of his brew, then finally lashing out at the boy in drunken truth:
"You think I drink dis slop could I afford good likker like yo paw? How you know what makes a man lak me need a drink in de fust place? How you know what go on inside me I don never talk about? Who put you up where you know what good for me and what ain't?"
There lies the crux of the issue.
Sams is unflinching in his description of the kindnesses, indignities, and also the violence, meted out to blacks by whites both good and bad. But he never looks beneath the surface, never judges. It is only at the novel's shocking conclusion that "the boy" is forced to confront the moral reality of the old South. And at that point his conflicting loyalties seem in danger of never being resolved.
But like visitors in the parlor of a delightful southern gentleman, we come away from "Run With the Horsemen" knowing that although much remains hidden, avoided, not discussed, we have been charmed and mightily entertained. Such is Ferrol Sams' considerable achievement, one not to be sneezed at.