Last night, my book club met for dinner and book talk. The menu: seafood pasta, salad, bread, chocolate creme pie, coffee, and wine. The book: Littlejohn by Howard Owen.
In short, Littlejohn is 82 year-old Littlejohn McCain. He’s a man who would “sooner be dead all at once than die every day in some old folks’ home” and his extraordinary story is bittersweet. Littlejohn’s demons are foretold by his palm-readin’, snuff-dippin’, 102 year-old Aunt Mallie when he is five years old. On the surface, her palmistry predicts a hard road for the boy but also promises that “the Lord Jesus got some surprises in store” for him as well. The early pages of the story mask the complexities of a man who, although illiterate for half his life, is redeemed by his own intuition, patient wisdom, and collective secrets.
Littlejohn’s processing of human behavior and the motivations behind it accounts for the depth of his own experience beyond what appears on the surface. The central theme of the book might, perhaps, be the tragedy of timeless consequences arising from simple carelessness; and the central plot might be represented by Littlejohn’s life-long struggle to make peace with his own carelessness–the careless, yet accidental shooting of his own brother. Owen laces the story with events and situations that also prompt other characters to choose their battles and to make choices that either free them or bind them. In the end, the ownership of those choices becomes an undeniable source of self-empowerment and redemption.
Set in the heart of the North Carolina Sandhills, Littlejohn effectively portrays the remnants of an indigenous post-Civil War culture that, to a certain degree, arose from the mingling of blacks, whites, Lumbees, and “Hittites;” their boundaries and borders of sand and swamps; and their co-existence in the struggle to survive. For local readers, the book’s historical and geographical detail is particularly interesting, especially Owen’s references to Sherman’s march, fat-lightning, and logging roads.
Littlejohn by Howard Owen is published by Vintage Books of Random House, Inc.