15 May 2006

Homer Price, small-town hero

One of the models I keep coming back to for some of my stories are two collections of tall tales by Robert McCloskey: Homer Price (1943) and Centerburg Tales (1951).

A big part of their appeal is the old-fashioned, small-town setting. I'm not sure that can be nostalgia on my part since I've never lived in such a town. But the books were nostalgic from the get-go, showing how Centerburg modernizes slightly with each fast-talking businessman who comes through. We can see that theme in the machines slipping into the lunch counter, the development displacing the old Victorian homestead, and even (on a thematic level) the way most of Grandpa Hercules's stories are about little changes gradually adding up.

But the biggest change from the first book to the second, I realized on a recent rereading, is in Homer himself. Most of the first book's stories start with him doing kid stuff: playing with radios, reading comics, visiting relatives. Homer helps his Uncle Ulysses at the lunch counter, but that's more a family chore than a job. In Homer Price the boy proves himself so capable that in Centerburg Tales he has at least three regular jobs. In fact, he often seems to be the only local doing any work.

That shift is most clear in the story called "Experiment 13." Not only does Homer seek out a summer job, but that job involves standing on the roof of a greenhouse smashing panes of glass with a hammer—does his mother know? Later, the town leaders frighten themselves with the Cold War potential of ragweed seeds, planning to send a delegation to Washington, D.C.—and then entrust those dangerous items to Homer and his pal Freddy.

The narrative reflects that shift in how the "Experiment 13" point of view sticks with the adult characters, not Homer. He goes across the street to the bank; we readers wait with the grown-up men to find out what he's learned. Homer recognizes the giant plants, and McCloskey ends the scene; we find out what he's realized along with Uncle Ulysses and the sheriff. We're not in the room as Homer and Freddy decide what to do with those seeds; we're once again outside with the grown-ups. This is opposite from how most stories from kids are written, but then everything has been gently turned upside-down in Centerburg.

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