“I don’t care who you are–when it comes to knowing where you came from, you got to take somebody’s word for it.” Any orphan boy knows that, but Grady has a twist on that problem: “I only know one man who might be able to tell me where I come from, and that man is a liar and a fraud.”
The Charlatan’s Boy unfolds its tale in a leisurely, episodic manner, following its protagonist through the towns and villages and byways of Corenwald, an imaginary island where civilization has a precarious foothold. It looks, feels, and sounds like the southern American frontier. In fact, you might hear an echo of Georgia’s Hiawassee River and Okefenokee Swamp in place names like Eechihoolie River and Feechifen Swamp–and you would not be wrong, friend. Swampishness saturates the narrative, as atmospheric as cypress knees and swaying moss.
Grady (the only name he goes by) doesn’t know his exact age or origin but depends on Floyd Wendellson for his life narrative. The narrative keeps changing, though, depending on what Floyd feels like telling: sometimes he says Grady was found under a palmetto leaf, sometimes that his mama gave him away because he was so ugly. That’s at least believable. Grady is so ugly that, minus a few clothes and plus a layer of mud, he could pass for an authentic Feechie, representative of the quasi-mythical savages who are said to inhabit the southern swamps.
As the story opens, Floyd and Grady have been plying the “Feechie trade” amongst gullible villagers all over Corenwald, Floyd posing as the notable Feechie expert Perfessor Wendellson and Grady as the crouching, chest-beating, oogily-boogily specimen. When the Feechie trade wears thin, they can fall back on other trade, like panther paste, phrenology, turkey dancing, or even ugly boy contests, which Grady is a shoo-in to win. He’s not too disturbed by being ugly–”Facts is facts”–but flat-out lying bothers him: “I think I’m an honest feller. I want to do what’s right, but I ain’t had a lot of practice at it. Being in Floyd’s employ, a feller doesn’t get a lot of opportunity to practice his honesty muscle.”
He takes professional pride in the Feechie act, but that’s because Floyd has him convinced he really is a Feechie–until one terrible day of disenchantment, after which it becomes harder and harder to tell the difference between showmanship and lying. “In quiet hours I picture it–a world where telling the truth don’t lead to a man’s ruination. I ain’t had much luck picturing it, but don’t it sound grand?”
Comparisons to Huck Finn are inevitable, but not complete. The voice is similar, as is the meandering structure and colorful characterization. But the theme is very different. Objective truth doesn’t matter that much to Huck; he lies when it suits him and strives to be true only to himself. But Grady has reason to be concerned about what’s real and what’s not, because it makes a difference in who he is. In an interview for Christianbook.com, Jonathan Rogers says that the story is in one sense about epistemology: how we know what we know (see his blog for more about this). Grady is looking for certainty, even if he can’t understand it or give it a name yet: “This call–somehow I knew it was the bark of the bog owl. It sounded like the swamp–the whole swamp, every swamp–come to life and given a voice. It was terrible to hear. And yet it was a comfort too. It sounded like the truth.”
And that sounds rather heavy, but it isn’t. The novel is funny and touching and action-packed; as colorful as Perfessor Floyd’s wagon, which is always being repainted to advertise the latest scam. Also beautifully written. It’s not giving too much away to say that Grady’s quest has a happy resolution, because it takes a heap of surprises to get there. Boys will love it. Girls, too!
Questions and stuff, if you want to get all schoolish about it:
- In order to give his main character a distinctive voice, the author twists some English words into something that’s not quite English, such as tenter-hearted, pranky, highsterical. Can you find other examples? Do you have any problem figuring out what these words mean?
- Write a paragraph explaining where you came from using Grady’s voice, or something like it.
- How does the last paragraph on page 304 relate to Psalm 147:11 and 149:4?
- Draw your own frontier island with its peculiar geographical features and climate. Would it have mountains? Swamps or bogs? Lakes and waterfalls? Snow?
For other frontier tales, see Tall Telling. And for your own copy of The Charlatan’s Boy, signed (with an alligator!) by the author, be sure to enter our Father’s Day contest! AND be watching for our interview with Jonathan Rogers next week!