The thing I liked most about A CHILDHOOD by Harry Crews was the lack of self-pity. This is an autobiographical work not a work of fiction and contains the details of a hard scrabble farming life in rural Georgia and later in Florida with malnutrition, horrific childhood accidents, the death of a father, an alcoholic stepfather, poverty in general etc.
However, Crews’s tone throughout is lite. He’s looking backwards through the mirror of a life well-lived with some or all goals achieved. He’s a successful writer and these were the life experiences that made him who he was. They didn’t scar him but rather gave him a wealth of living to draw from when writing.
Crews’s descriptions here are immediate and easily visualized and packed on top of each other like sardines. They come so fast, the effect is tiring. This is a short book about a 170 pages and reads very quickly but feels like it’s much longer.
Maxim Gorky did something similar but with much longer prose in his MY CHILDHOOD trilogy. Like that book, the most terrible parts are the most memorable especially Crews’s childhood injuries – A weird condition that leaves him crippled for a period as a small child (and which is never diagnosed) and an accident in which is he is burned on much of his body. The scenes describing his healing and especially the scabbing process will make you grit your teeth.
What the reader is left with is the age old discussion of how much a writer’s life experience is important to his writing. With Crews, he shows us a positive outcome which is the birth of a writer from the hard life of poor sharecroppers and tenant farmers.
The people in this book have dignity. They are the characters every writer dreams of. I understand why many people consider this Crews’s best book.