BOOK REVIEW: BEN STEMPTON’S BOY
At Pineapple Hill, my “beach house in a cow pasture” in rural South Carolina, spring opens with small bursts of yellow, pink or white flowers in cottony clusters against a backdrop of pasture land and woods: a dozen different greens all of them brilliantly reborn—and electrified, it seems—while the sky, lit up like neon, is glassy and blue.
Like the world around me, I break out of my winter shell, spending fewer early morning hours in my third floor office and more time outside tending peach trees, a small vineyard, and gardens of bamboo and banana trees. And when evenings are finally cool but no longer cold, I bring a book to the screened porch and climb into a hammock—the Pawley’s Island kind. A breeze moves the ceiling fans just so—they squeak—and Marianne’s twenty-two pound tabby, Bud, my wingman, jumps onto the table beside me. Barn swallows fly in and out of the space beneath us, building nests where a red canoe hangs up high and out of the way. Off in the distance, field grasses sway with a rippling effect that reminds me of the sea. It was here one day recently that I opened my copy of Ron Yates’s novel, Ben Stempton’s Boy. It’s pages were crisp, full of promise and, I quickly learned, genuine truth keepers in their portrayal of the Southern condition: struggle, loss, and recovery—Sisyphus always rolling that boulder uphill—but also warmth, humor, passion, and forgiveness cycling through as our seasons do, sometimes gently, other times with violence. The South is complex. Especially so in 1972, a time of change when old ways were breaking under the weight of new.
Yates opens with a hitchhiker arriving in rural Georgia in search of his only known relative who, it turns out, has already passed. An old man carrying a load of timber gives him a lift, a shack to stay in, and a job clearing land. Day by day, what begins as a temporary respite becomes a place to call home. People and events take hold the way kudzu does as, through the lens of this newcomer from the North, we’re shown the South and her people as they really are: rough yet gentle, loud as firecrackers yet quiet as pine needles, standoffish yet generous. The plot advances easily as if cruising a small town, then it swings out for a tour of the countryside, pulling off for a closer look at a rutted path, then at just the right time it accelerates because believe it or not sometimes the South is in a hurry.
No, I will not give too much away. No spoilers here. Except to promise that Yates shows you the South most never see, and does so with no clichés, just gritty truth. His writing voice is honest and familiar, perfect for probing the complexities of a small dot of a place below the Mason-Dixon line.
Ben Stempton’s Boy is a great fit for hammock-minded stories lovers located the world over.
You’ll want two copies. One for the beach, boat, or book club, and another to share with your friends.