We’ve all had that conversation at some point in our lives: a person retelling a phase in their lives, a tale of him and her and his friend and her cousin and his step-father’s third child. The conversation abruptly switches back and forth between the present, the past and somewhere in-between. When asked for clarification, the speaker waves his hands, declares, “It’s not important who is who.” and continues with the story. Growing Up Dead in Texas is such a tale. Part fiction, perhaps part memoir, this novel has characters that come and go like a poor white trash version of a Russian novel – but keeping track of the characters is not important.
What is important is the impact of death on a child. Indelible impressions of the death of a brother, a fellow student, a family friend draw the maps to adulthood for the adolescents who experience these losses. The thickest line, though, is drawn by the death of a crop, the destruction of the cotton farmed in Greenwood, Texas in 1986. The community suffers, but the children more so.
The story brought me back to my own childhood memory. Some Friday or Saturday, perhaps in late Spring or early Fall, the evening sounds of birds chirping, light traffic and the occasional clunk of a train car were replaced by the sound of a Coast Guard helicopter hovering over the river behind my home. The helicopter’s rotor blades whirred low near my house for hours. The following Monday, our teacher informed us that our classmate’s five year old brother had wandered into the backyard of his waterfront home and had fallen into the river. An extended search, illuminated by the helicopter’s spotlight, had produced the body. Almost thirty years later, I steadfastly refuse to live along the water or in a home with a pool. I am like the narrator and Greenwood at large “still…watching the smoke rise.” Perhaps author Stephen Graham Jones is watching smoke, too.
Growing Up Dead in Texas