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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Prince Edward, a novel by Dennis McFarland

The novel is named for a county in southside Virginia that is best known for closing its public schools from 1959 to 1964 in opposition to racial integration. Most of author Dennis McFarland’s book takes place in August, 1959 just prior to the public school closing and the establishment of a private school for the white students. Although the main characters are fictional, some of the minor characters were real and the place names, such as the town of Farmville, are also real.

The main character, Ben, is a 10 year old boy, and most of the action is told in the first person by him. At times, however, the point of view switches to Ben’s adult voice that fills in the history of what is transpiring round the boy and what is the outcome. The pace of the action is slow, very much in tune of the pace of a hot southern summer at that time.

The closing of the Prince Edward County schools was well covered in the news, and I was 12 at the time and remember it well. In addition, I have visited the county a few times, the first visit taking place in 1966 just two years after the schools reopened. I was there with a friend who had decided to follow his family tradition of attending Hampden Sidney College which is located in the county near where the main character’s family, the Romes, had their fictional farm. My second trip was during his freshman year when I drove down from Maryland for a party. During these trips I met a young couple who were known to my friend because the husband had been a friend of my friend’s older brother while they were students at Hampden Sidney. The young husband was a lawyer in Farmville and killed himself a few years later, I believe. It’s possible that he played a role in the legal matters surrounding the school closing, but I don’t know.

The novel’s main character’s family has little resemblance to the TV stereotype of the 1950’s such as Father Knows Best or on Ricky Nelson’s show. The Romes are chicken farmers, and the mother and father show little affection for each other or display any ability to communicate with their three children. The grandfather is a cruel self-centered man who lives in the big house nearby on the family property. Ben’s attachments are to his older brother and especially to his older sister and to his best friend, a black boy of Ben’s age whose family live as tenant farmers on the Rome family land.

The characters and the action of Prince Edward seem very real to me. Some of the events are unpleasant and may be classified by literary types as Southern Gothic or in the Faulkner mode. I wasn’t able to find out much about the author, Dennis McFarland except that he was born in the Deep South and, based on when he graduated from college, he would appear to be a few years younger than me. That would make him close to the age of his main character in 1959, and since I tend to believe that authors put some of themselves into their characters the vivid descriptions of rural and small town southern life are as he would have seen them at the time. I think I felt a foreshadowing of a future in literature for Ben when he responds to an older woman showing him an Emily Dickinson poem, one my favorites.

I'm going to look around for more of McFarland's books.

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