A book review of The Boys Who Woke Up Early
It’s 1959 and school is starting in the town of Early, in the mountains of Virginia near Bluefield. Stony, now grown up, is remembering the day his best friend Jack arrived at Early High School, complete with beret and clarinet case, scoffed at by all the greasers. On the other side of the steps is Stony himself, the town kid, and he is intrigued. Our scene is set in the first chapter of this true-to-life, tightly written novel by A. D. Hopkins. How do I know it’s true to life? I was a freshman in high school in 1959 in the Piedmont flatlands of Virginia – different in some ways from the mountains but in others, very much the same. I’m happy to see this story being told, without cliches about the South or the mountains, with the good and the bad laid bare without accusations or excuses.
It’s English class and everyone has been told to memorize a poem and recite it. Mary Lou begins with a poem not in the textbook, which you may have heard as a song: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” This is a daring choice. One of the greasers says, “What the hell does that mean anyway?” But Mary Lou’s answer is ready: “I wanted to learn a poem that had made something happen.” That something, of course, was the Civil War, which is still not over in Early.
The class and color lines are exposed right here. Stony’s corner of class is for the town kids, some of whom are former hillbillies like his family, but who nonetheless don’t socialize with the hillbilly kids like Mary Lou or the greasers. Mary Lou is a bit unusual because she’s lived in West Virginia, where the races are less segregated: “Colored people didn’t exactly like each other, but they could work in the same mines” and shop in the same stores. “None of this horseshit about having two different streets of stores, both starving for business.” Mary Lou’s father works in the mill that Stony’s father runs; these families don’t socialize either. In fact, the older generation is so busy with the unpaid civic and church work necessary to run the town that there’s little time left over to supervise the kids. Stony and Jack take full creative advantage of this, playing the edge between the legal and the illegal, always with the best intentions in mind.
Early on, they worm their way into the confidence of the sheriff’s chief deputy, Really Big Ben, and become unpaid volunteers, doing grunt paperwork and learning to clean the department’s considerable stock of guns. Violence usually happens on the weekends, fueled by liquor, paychecks, domestic strife, and occasional racism, and the perpetually understaffed police have to be ready to deal with it. It doesn’t take long for the boys to learn that justice is often a casualty of local politics, where the sheriff and the county prosecutor are both elected and can’t afford to offend the wrong part of the population. Or sometimes, the law itself makes it tough to arrest the real troublemakers, like the Ku Klux Klan.
The Klan begins to hold its cross-burning, hymn-singing rallies in 1960, when the presidential election brings out lots of black people to register to vote. It’s totally legal of course, protected by the right of free assembly — and also of religion, since some claim the Klan is their religion. Many solid citizens belong to the Klan, and as Really Big Ben tells the boys, “A lot of ‘em have just that one blind spot, and on any other matter they’ll do the right thing.” So it’s a delicate balance for the law.
All the elements are present for some explosive incidents in Early and the boys certainly do wake it up. You can read this novel and focus on the hell-raising confrontations between moonshiners, kids, and lawmen, on family feuds dating back to 1924, on the boys’ narrow escapes from situations their sense of honor and their plain old stupidity get them into. It’s a fun book and it will often make you laugh out loud. Stony is a natural-born raconteur and his voice rings totally true. But yes, there is this dead serious side to the story, and without falling into a sermon, Hopkins helps you to hear it. We need more books like this, capable of telling the truth without political correctness. We need more books that emphasize mercy as well as justice, forgiveness as well as judgement. This is one. Read it.
Editor's note: this story was provided by the author's publicist, Michela DellaMonica of Smith Publicity, Inc.
Image Credits: the photos used in this story are promotional (fair use).