Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Back Home Again: Tru and Nelle: A Christmas Tale by G. Neri

Mother had finally had it with him. "I wish I'd given birth to Pinocchio! At least he turned into a real boy in the end." "Pinocchio isn't real, he's fiction," was all Truman could say (he was a writer, after all).

Her answer was to ship him off to St. John's Military Academy, of all places. No cadet had every been more ill-suited than delicate little Truman. Every day he was bullied. Finally his only choice was to run away, hoping that his only chance was to run far away, hoping his curse wouldn't follow.

The only place he could think to go was Monroeville. He just wanted to see Sook, to eat Little Bit's butter beans. even to hear Jenny lecture him. He missed them all. But mostly, he missed Big Boy and Nelle.

It's 1937. Two years before, Tru had chosen his mother's custody and living in New York City with her and her new husband, Joe Capote. But he soon learned his mother didn't really want him around. She hated the way he was different, his squeaky little voice, artsy friends and clothes, "the way he sashayed when he walked."

The military school was torture, and that was how, just before Christmas, Tru, still dressed as a cadet, came to be in a freezing boxcar approaching a railroad crossing near Monroeville, Alabama. His hobo fellow traveler gave him a push and told him "tuck and roll," as the train slowed, and that's how Truman Capote found himself face-planted in the hard, cold Alabama dirt beside the tracks.

I must be cursed, he thought.

When he opened his eyes, he saw it--not a vision, but a magnificent cedar standing right before him, the perfect Christmas tree. With a tree like that, his curse would go cowering into the night. A tree like that announced a fresh start. A tree that erased the past.

As Robert Frost said, "Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."

And his Alabama cousins do take Tru in, but his curse still seems with him. He finds Nelle Harper Lee wearing a dress, her hair long, looking surprisingly like a girl. And when she spots him shivering in their old treehouse and, dress and all, climbs up to pelt him with a million questions, she's just in time to see cousin Jenny's house next door suddenly take fire. Jenny, Sook, their cook Little Bit, and dog Queenie, are homeless and forced to move in with cousin Big Boy Jenning's family just before Christmas. But Sook still believes in her Christmas fruit cakes, and Truman still believes that perfect Christmas tree will make everything right, the way it used to be.

But when Truman and Nelle set out to claim that tree, they meet up with their old nemesis Boss Henderson, now bigger and meaner, son of the former Klan Grand Dragon, who's claimed the tree for himself. Just as he's about to beat the stew out of Truman for disputing the matter, Nelle clobbers Boss from behind with a big limb, and they take it on the lam, afraid Boss is dead.

He's not, but now he's really on their case. And a real murder draws Truman as Sherlock and Nelle as Watson back to their old sleuthing game. An elderly man is found dead near the river landing, and Nelle, nearby with her dad A.C., remembers noticing two colored men nearby. When two black men are found in the area, the towspeople railroad the two into a conviction, and despite A. C. Lee's defense, a Klan lynching seems a real possibility. Nelle believes she will be the cause of the wrongful death of two innocent men, and Truman is sure he's brought his own curse upon the Lee Family, the defendants, and the whole town of Monroeville, Alabama.

Even a Christmas morning snow, the first in history, doesn't make this holiday seem like Christmas, with A.C. Lee himself staked out at the jail in hope of averting a Christmas Day lynching. But then the whole Lee-Jennings family decides to move their feast--butter beans for Tru, fruit cakes for the two prisoners, and amazingly, the perfect Christmas tree--all to the Monroeville jail for Christmas dinner. It's not what Tru had hoped for, exactly; it's even a little weird, but maybe..., maybe his curse might be gone after all.

Nelle looked at Truman. "You can't keep running. You need to stand up for yourself. Tell them you are who you are.

"I'll promise to stay true to myself if you do, too. It's not all left to fate or curses, Truman."

In G. Neri's second book in series, Tru and Nelle: A Christmas Tale(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), Tru and Nelle are, of course, cousins Truman Capote and Nelle Harper Lee, coming together for a Christmas that marks a turning point in the lives of each.

Like Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, in this sequel, life in Monroeville is not unlike one of Sook's fruit cakes, sweet but dark, rich, complex, and full of the flavor of home from Snake Joe's whiskey and dried kumquats to Sonny Boular's (a.k.a., Boo Radley's) pecans, the mix of Southern sunshine and the clouds of racism that fed the imaginations of two of the most famous American authors of the twentieth century. A worthy sequel to Neri's noted Tru and Nelle (see my 2016 review here), this is a strong novel, beautifully written, imbued with a sense of place, a tale that tells the truth as only fiction can, about family and home and finding your own way when you leave both behind.

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