May you always do for others
And let others do for you.
Words of advice, if not instruction, for the years and decades ahead, from Bob Dylan in “Forever Young,” a song he wrote in 1973 and recorded twice for the next year’s album, Planet Waves . The first version is slow and reverential, underscoring the serious nature of his father-to-son advise, while the second is uptempo and snappy, bringing enthusiasm to the same words on what awaits in life. Dylan, with energized backing from The Band, makes the directive, “May you grow up to be righteous” sound exhilarating.
In the notes packaged with his box set, Biograph, Dylan reflected on “Forever Young,” saying, “I wrote it thinking about one of my boys and not wanting to be too sentimental.” When he was recording the slow version of the song, a visitor at the studio asked him if he was getting mushy in his old age. That irritated Dylan for a time but not enough to keep the track off the album. In Clinton Heylin’s book, Revolution in the Air, The Songs of Bob Dylan, 1957-73, Dylan is quoted as saying, “It’s all in your heart: whatever keeps you that way, keeps you forever young… It doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t grow old, but you still have contact with what put you where you are.”
Dylan’s thoughtfulness about what makes for a good life and the hopes he expresses for his children strike a familiar chord with those who have embraced the rigors of parenting and perhaps more so with those who’ve seen a new generation of offspring arrive and compel attention. The grandparents, in most cases, are happy to accommodate. It’s another chance to imbue young lives with hope. Such thoughts ensue after reading Halley, a novel by Kaye Gibbons (New South Books in Montgomery, Alabama).
Set in the hilly country of Northwest Georgia during the Depression, Halley is, in a way, a snapshot of just how hard life was for millions throughout the ’30s, especially in hardscrabble rural America. It was a time of want — deep want — for even the most basic staples such as grits and coffee. In his brilliant Like The Dew essay, The Great Depression And Dirty ’30s, Tom Poland wrote, “Nothing to throw away… We live in a throwaway society today, but back then a scrap of most anything was prized.” Times were hard in a way that’s unimaginable to most of us these days. And the times brought out the hardness in people, such as Halley Owenby’s maternal grandfather, Webb Franklin. Utter selfishness and a total lack of empathy infused Pa Franklin’s heart and soul, although his job was to change hearts and lead souls.
I’m Preachin’ The Word Of God, I’m Puttin’ Out Your Eyes . . . . Pa Franklin would shake the rafters in his warning of hell fire when preaching on repentance of sins (especially sins that brought comfort and joy to the flesh). The possibility of a person living a fruitful Christian life didn’t excite him nearly as much as invoking against the devil’s handiwork. He hated sin and had less use for the sinner. Given that all around him were sinners, he had not the scantest bit of love for the community, his congregants or even his own family. There would be hell to pay to anyone crossing Webb Franklin .
Halley Owenby, her kid brother, Robbie, and her mother, Kate, had already gone through enough hell. Halley’s father, Jim, was killed in an accident while helping his brothers push their truck out of the ditch. Jim’s brothers were running moonshine, leading Pa Franklin to surmise that his son-in-law was already charred to a crisp in the inferno below. Franklin wasn’t shy about sharing that opinion either, no matter how much it hurt his family. After all, hurting the loved ones was second nature to him. And he’d have many opportunities to do so. With Jim Owenby now doing time in Hell, his wife and children would move in at Ma and Pa Franklin’s, a place slightly better. The avarice of the country preacher was manifested when he sold the Owenby’s home and many of their possessions, pocketing the proceeds for himself. He wouldn’t do for others but would let others do for him.
Kaye Gibbons’ novel, written in third-person, focuses on life through the eyes of the 14 year-old Halley, whose world had been turned upside down. Her father was a giving and loving man. He took good care of Kate and the children, showing them love and respect. Halley had looked forward to graduating from high school and perhaps going to Martha Berry’s college in Rome, Georgia. At 14, she was also aware of the ever expanding nature of social life. It was talked about, dwelled upon and wildly anticipated, even with the fearful circumstances. But all Halley could do was dream of a better time that now seemed so far away. Suddenly, she became the one who kept house and supervised the kitchen. Lots of picking, peeling, soaking and cooking went into the meals at the Franklin house, where tonight’s main course may have been walking the grounds during the previous dinner. It was a hard life preempting the time to mourn her father. Even a proper tribute became an impossibility when Pa Franklin stole the money she had been saving to buy a marker for her father’s grave. Then her education was put on hold as she had to look after her grandmother, who had taken ill. Pa Franklin wasn’t bound to look after his poor wife as he was out playing pastor, visiting the sick.
Kate Owenby had been married to a more modern-thinking man, a rare sort in that part of the country in those years, but whatever she had absorbed from her husband vanished when she and the kids moved back in with her parents. It made for a submissive life in which she pledged obedience to the more stark interpretations of Christian life. Her father, supposedly speaking for Jesus, appeared to have little knowledge of the 5th chapter of Matthew, in which Jesus put forth his thoughts on how God’s people should relate to each other. All that would’ve been too time-consuming for Pa Franklin. It was much easier for him to steal from his daughter and his grandchildren while admonishing them day and night. If they didn’t follow his rules, he raged, then their very souls were in peril.
Pa Franklin fumed over his son, Gid, leaving home to work in the CCC, gathering that Gid was spending time in dens of iniquity as well as planting trees. He was happy to procure the money Kate made at the mill but indignant she may be contemplating marriage with a local widower. Jim had been dead for only 5 months, and the wife of Kate’s new boyfriend died only two months after. Given the limited opportunities and the desire to make things just a bit better, a new marriage so soon wasn’t such a bad idea. Besides, they both had to be missing the good thing. We’re talking about relatively young people here, the characters in Halley, that like most of the others, Kaye Gibbons presents very well. In particular, Gibbons paints a vibrant picture of Halley. The hardships make Halley 14 going on 60. There’s a lot on her and she works through it a day at a time. The reader comes to know Halley’s heart and head, and pulls for her. She comes off as a tough girl deserving of a few breaks, starting with escape from the madness.
As Halley draws to a close, climatic moments abound. During one of his fits of rabid anger, certain truths about Pa Franklin are discovered. His thievery is revealed to be even worse than already realized. He becomes violent in his rage, invoking the old spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child ruse. The man’s behavior is beyond unfathomable. If the reader hasn’t hated him before, the last tirade will seal the deal. The family, even the faithful preacher’s wife, turns against him. He goes for a walk, one the reader senses can’t be long enough.
However, leading to the novel’s lone weak moment, he returns — and in heroic fashion. An act of courage leads to renewal with his family. He was there at the right time and tragedy was averted; readers can be thankful for that, but one can’t help but feel that the first decent thing Webb Garrison has done in decades isn’t enough to feel warm and fuzzy over. For a man who made his life’s work preaching repentance and atonement, Pa Franklin certainly didn’t lay his sins on the line. Perhaps readers know he’ll have to deal with God, and that can’t be soon enough. Yet his family is joyful because his brave deed came in the nick of time. There are signs that he may go from being a tyrant to just a crusty old curmudgeon. That will be fine with Halley and her family, free to make a new start. They’re not looking to even up the score. Yet for the reader having absorbed the wicked ways of the one dimensional Webb Franklin, this is too much redemption way too soon.
Joni Mitchell, in “Woodstock,” wrote, “But you know life is for learning.” Halley Owenby learned a lifetime’s worth before she was 15. It made her feel older — that’s for sure — but as scars from her youth remained, she could think on them and, to paraphrase Dylan, look for whatever was in her heart that could keep her forever young. It would, as Dylan has said, give her “a strong foundation when the winds of changes shift.”