Here is my first review for the Southern Summer Reading Challenge!
Terry Kay, The Year the Lights Came On (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1976). 300 pages
It’s 1947. The war is over; across rural America, the Rural Electric Administration (REA) is stringing electrical lines, uniting the nation together with strands of copper that bring light and time saving appliances to all America. Colin Wynn is a ten year old. He’s excited about the coming of the electricity. The Year the Lights Came On is his story of coming of age.
In the town of Emery, Colin is one of the “have nots.” In the late 40s, the haves and have nots are divided by electricity. Colin and his family live in the country and unlike the city folk and those who live on the highway, they don’t have electricity. This means that their homes are not used for church social gatherings or Cub Scout meetings. In school, the town kids and the rural kids form into two gangs. They’re constantly at each other’s throats. The rural boys all take the “Big Gully Oath,” which seals them against the kids who live along the highway and in town. When it is discovered that Colin and Megan (who lives along the highway and has electricity in her home) have a thing for each other, Colin is booted from the club for a week. Kay does a great job expressing the horror of a ten year old boy being exposed as having a girlfriend.
There are two strong characters in the book. Colin’s brother Wesley is a few years older and often has the wisdom of Solomon. Wesley, who later becomes a Methodist minister, provides the moral conscience in the book. The other character is a poor kid named Freeman. Much of the book centers on Freeman’s escape from the Sheriff after he’s been framed for stealing twenty dollars from his employer. Freeman (his name gives us insight to his character) spends days hiding in the swamp. The plot of the book centers on the futile attempts by the sheriff and his deputies to apprehend him. One funny story is how Freeman’s friends, including Wesley and Colin, take Freeman’s clothes down into the swamp and make circles with them, confusing the bloodhounds who just about run themselves to death as they pick up the boy’s scent everywhere. In the end, Freeman is not captured, but comes out of the swamp seeking medical attention for a knife cut. It later turns out that he hadn’t stolen the money.
Freeman's run from the law allows Kay and opportunity to explore the racial relations within the community. Freeman finds help from several black families who live near the swamp. When Wesley and Colin discover this, Wesley makes Coin swear an oath that they'll tell no one out of a fear that if it is discovered that these families helped Freeman, it could mean trouble for them. In one encounter, Baptist (a local black man) sits Wesley and Colin down and teaches them about the "meanness" in people, upsetting Colin's youthful trust in the "goodness" of folks.
Kay is a wonderful storyteller and in several chapters, which seem to divert from the main focus of the book, the reader is treated to wonderful down home tales. Two chapters are pure classic, the one that tells about the Dare-Devil’s flying show and the one about Preacher Bytheway’s “Speaking in Tongues Traveling Tent Tabernacle. Bytheway, a former fertilizer salesman, buys a tent from a defunct circus. Folks flock to his revival: some are drawn by religion and others like Freeman come for the show. Under the hot canvas, the crowd tries to keep cool with fans provided by a local funeral home with the imprint, “Give you life to Jesus, trust your remains to us.” Preacher Bytheway “started on a fox hunt of scripture until he treed the passage about Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and that became his topic.” (I’ll forgive Mr. Kay for mixing his metaphors here. Although I never hunted foxes, I can’t imagine treeing one. Raccoons, or coons as they're called down South, are treed.) As the good preacher continues with his sermon, “it was like he’d been jolted with a charge from an Atlas car battery.” During the week of revival, Bytheway convicts Loran, a man known for his limited intelligence. Bytheway baptizes, and then ordains him. Loran later comes to believe that he’s sent by God to save animals and sets out to baptize the entire animal kingdom, creating numerous humorous situations.
I really enjoyed this book and several times found myself laughing so hard that I had to put the book down and catch my breath. However, as a whole, the book seems to have too many threads and subplots that you almost forget about the coming of the REA till at the end, when all of a sudden the wires are connected to Colin’s house and his mother’s prediction comes true. With the electric lights, things are different. The family no longer gathers around a few kerosene lamps at night. With the coming of the lights, there are things they’ll give up. Family closeness is one of them.
This is Terry Kay’s first novel, published over thirty years ago. A couple months ago, I reviewed his recent novel, The Valley of Light and decided to read another of his works for the Southern Summer Reading Challenge. For more of Sage’s book and movie reviews, click here.
Also check out Semi-colon's Saturday Review of Books