They cruised down Main Street, past the Tastee-Freeze and Dabney’s Esso Station and the Post Office and the First National Bank of Maple Springs and Crutchfield’s General Store. At the town’s only traffic light, he turned left toward the highway. At the edge of town they passed the colored Baptist Church with its nearly-tended grid of white crosses and gravestones under a gnarled willow.
The setting and themes of Len Joy’s debut novel is foreshadowed by its title, American Past Time. From this, the reader can glean a specific era of American history, the mid-twentieth century, what it means to be American after the Second World War, and hints at the idealized dreams associated with America’s “favorite” pastime, baseball. Tracing the history of the Stonemasons of Maple Springs, Missouri, the author focuses in on “what happens to a man and his family after the cheering stops”:
“I had a call from Mr. Stanky this morning.” Doc pulled out a cigar and sniffed it up and down. He acted as if the Cardinals manager called him every day. “Haddix has a sore arm. They’re thinking about shutting him down. Cards ain’t going nowhere.”
The novel is divided into four segments, each one told in close third-person. The first part tells the story of the father, Dancer Stonemason, a local baseball Phenom who is called up to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals, but before he goes, he has one more game to play for his triple-A farm team. What happens in that game causes Dancer to spiral out of control:
Dede brought the milk into the kitchen and heated the water for her instant coffee and Jimmy’s oatmeal. If it weren’t for the boys, maybe she would have just curled up in a ball on her bed and waited for a better day. That’s what her mama had done.
The second part is devoted to Dancer’s wife, Dede who has played her own role in her husband’s tumble from grace. She represents the stalwart women left alone after World War II, who were left to rebuild their lives with few skills and many mouths to feed. Like Dancer, she is not “perfect,” but she dedicates her life to her two boys:
Clayton hadn’t played baseball since his Grasshopper League days. And that had been a softball tossed underhand by one of the fathers. This was hardball. Real baseball. With real pitching.
Jimmy shook his head and walked over to the end of the table where he had stashed his articles on the draft. He picked up his papers and headed for the kitchen. “Clayton, I got something to show you.”
The third section brings the reader to the Stonemason boys, Clayton and Jimmy. As is so often the case, they are cut from different cloth, one an athlete who choses basketball rather than baseball, and the other boy, an “A” student with an astute business mind. As they grow older, they come to see life in Maple Springs differently too:
Dancer put the family photo back on the hutch and picked up the baseball photo again. When he closed his eyes he could feel Clayton’s sticky hands and hot breath on his neck. He set it down and stuffed the family photo in the bag.
“The Stonemasons” segment ends the book drawing together the different threads of the story. This structure adds texture to the characters because the reader is able know each character on their own terms which enriches the experience. They are flawed, but good people, who travel through life making the best of their situation, living and learning as most of us do. They represent not just people from a specific period in history, but people as they survive throughout time.
The story is set in the middle of America in the middle of the 1900s when Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan were still the norm in the south. The author has his characters experiencing the ramifications of the Freedom Riders, attacks on blacks, as well as the moon landing and the Vietnam War. These events spark much of the action and lend authenticity to the story.
The era explored is also thematically rich, the most important being the value of forgiveness. Three of the characters, Jimmy the exception, need forgiveness. There is also the idea of loss, loss of respect, love, faith and self, woven through the story.
American Past Time shows the great American promise going awry, but it also reveals what America possesses. Like Len Joy’s characters, his America has resilience.
American Past Time, by Len Joy. Hark! New Era Publishing. 410 pages. $12.99, paper.
Gay Degani’s serialized suspense novel, What Came Before, is available in flash-sized chapters in print at Amazon as well Barnes & Noble. You can find a list of her other work at wordsinplace.blogspot.com.