Monday, May 21, 2007

Two Books and Memories of Clarkton

I was recently asked to make suggestions for the Southern Summer Reading Challenge and I thought about two of my favorite books by Cape Fear Country authors. Both of these guys, Robert Ruark and Guy Owen, are members in the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame and if you click on their links, you can read an excerpt of their writings. Warning: be careful where you read it. People might look at you strangely as you descend into a fit of hysterical laughter.

Robert Ruark, the author of the Old Man and the Boy, was born in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1915. He grew up in Southport, a small town at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. At the age of 15, he attended the University of North Carolina. Upon graduating with a degree in journalism, he worked as a newspaper reporter and did a stint in the Navy during World War Two. Following the war, his career took off. In addition to writing for newspapers, he also wrote for periodicals. This book, The Old Man and the Boy was taken from his column in Field and Streams. It’s a collection of short stories about growing up in the lower Cape Fear region under the guidance of his grandfather who taught the boy lessons in how to hunt and fish as well as larger lessons about life. Ruark fills his writing with wit and humor, making him a pleasure to read.

When I was a student at Roland Grice Junior High, every boy I knew read this book. A few years ago, when visiting my parents, I saw a copy of this book in a local bookstore. I snatched it up, knowing that I had to reread it. Unfortunately, I lent it out when I was in Utah and it never came home so I don’t have the book, annotated with my notes, to make a more thorough review of the book. Ruark later wrote a sequel, the Old Man’s Boy Grows Up. It tells stories about Ruark’s experiences at sea as well as a big game hunter in Africa. Ruark also wrote several novels. He died in 1965.

A Personal Interlude: Guy Owen was born in Clarkton, a town about sixty miles east of Wilmington on the Seaboard Coastline’s main tracks running from Lumberton to Wilmington. When I started working with the Boy Scouts, Clarkton was in my district and I have both fond and not so fond memories of the hamlet. On the positive side, it had a great restaurant for pork barbeque and catfish. In the fall, when spot were running along the coast, they had an all you can eat lunch special of fried spot; you just had to be able to pick out the bones. However, twice in Clarkton, my life flashed before my eyes as I narrowly escaped death. Once was early in the morning at the railroad crossings. I was heading north to Elizabethtown for a 7 AM meeting and had stopped for a train. Coming south was a loaded logging truck. I’d stopped just as the gates lowered, but then noticed the logging truck wasn’t slowing down. He crashed through the gates, narrowly missing the speeding locomotive pulling a 100 or more cars of freight. I had visions of dying underneath those logs as the train rolled the truck over my car. Someone was looking out for me for the end of those logs missed the locomotive by just a few feet. The second occasion I escaped death occurred on my last day working there. I’d stopped by to say goodbye to DeWitt, the town’s scoutmaster and we were talking out in his front yard. I’d said good bye and was heading across the street where I’d parked when I turned to say something else as I kept walking. I stepped out into the street, right in front of a pickup heading down the road. That old truck must have had new Midas brakes as the old farmer screeched to a stop just in the nick of time.

I first came across the writings of Guy Owen shortly after I graduated from college through a copy of The Flim-Flam Man and other Stories. The book contained stories of Mordecai Jones and Curley as they drive through the Cape Fear Country in an old hearse, pulling off one escapade after another. After reading that book, I kept my eye out for a copy of the Ballard of the Flim-Flam Man. It was out of print at the time and I had to get it out of the library, but I later brought my own copy after it was reprinted in 2000 by Coastal Carolina Press. The Ballard of the Flim-Flam Man tells the story of Mordecai Jones and Curley’s meeting. Curley had had enough of the army. As he tells it, “I’d tangled butts with this Yankee sergeant that keep riding me about Jefferson Davis and chitlin’s and such.” The two of them hook up and head off on a wild ride throughout Bladen County during tobacco season. They have their run-ins with farmers, farmer’s daughters, shop owners, the sheriff, moonshiners, evangelists and tobacco auctioneers.

Owen captures life down east as it was before I was born. He laments in the book that automatic tobacco curers (as opposed to the hand fed-wood fired barns like my granddaddy used) have destroyed the next generation of storytellers. He captures the atmosphere of a tent revival. Jones and Curley took over the preaching one evening for a sick evangelist. That was okay, but when they took over the collecting of offerings, that was pushing things a bit far and they found themselves again on the run. There are also morals in this book. Mordecai Jones, the old grifter, teaches his young apprentices three rules for the life of flim-flam, one of which is that “you can’t beat an honest man in the skin trade.”

Owens had a gift of capturing the language of the South and his writings are peppered with wonderful phrases and metaphors. A few years ago I jotted down several pages of these that came from his collection of short stories. Here are a few samples:

“falling in the outhouse and coming up smelling of roses,”
“that tanglefoot [moonshine] was so strong you could smell the feet of the boys who’d plowed the corn,”
“sober as a Quaker,”
“when the Lord passed out brains he was down in the canebrake,”
“there’s larceny in his veins,”
(he also speaks of vinegar in the veins)
“I was so lazy that I wouldn’t lift a fork if I was working in a pie factory.”
“as slick as eel manure”

I recommend both of these authors and in many ways I feel their words and stories are in my veins as I too grew up down east in Cape Fear Country.


  1. I will have to check those authors out...because I need a change of pace in my reading.

  2. I look forward to reading both, thanks!

  3. Thanks! I've not heard of these writers. Would you consider either a part of the "Rough South" crowd of authors, such as Larry Brown and Harry Crews?

  4. I have been hearing about both Ruark and Owen ever since I came to NC in 1969. I will have to get their books!

  5. Mistress, I will have to warn you, Owen's book is hard to find (read Diane's adventure about finding it). I should also note that they--especially Ruark--has normally been seen as guy lit, but their funny so I think you'd enjoy them

    Diane, I am looking forward to your reviews

    Maggie, I have a confession, I have not read either Brown or Crew, it looks like I might have a few other authors to check out

    Kenju, read them and when gas prices fall, take a trip down along highway 87 and 211 through Bladen County and check out the sites!

  6. As you know, I don't read much fiction but I will add this to my list of books to read in that genre should I ever start up again.

    P.S. Both books are available on The original Flim-Flam man in hardcover is there too but it is used and $25.

  7. Thanks for the info and sharing. I am really interested to check it out.
    Hope you're doing fine.

  8. I'd consider these for my Southern Reading Challenge but I made a promise to myself to go for books that you wouldn't read or perhaps haven't read. That last one is a challenge but I think 2 of the 3 on my list are ones that you haven't.

  9. Sounds like fun, thanks for the intro to it!

  10. After I finish with my list of books, I will chk those out. Thanks!

  11. I read that book about the Flim-flam Man about 5 years ago, Sage. They have it at the UNC library here in Chapel Hill, NC. Local flavor, and all that. I don't remember much from it tho. Mostly some stuff about tobacco auctions...I remember being a little disappointed there wasn't more grifting involved.

  12. Definitely an author I should add to my must try list. Great post, by the way. :-)

  13. I really did mean both authors, although Guy Owen's book especially intrigues me.

  14. Just a quick note, my hubby's reading The Old Man and the Boy. I checked it out for myself, but he swiped it. :D