Book Review: “Cripple Joe: Stories From My Daddy” by Donald Davis
| Reviewed by Mary Ickes |
Donald Davis writes in the “Author’s Notes” that family pictures are valuable only if we ask for their stories rather than forever wondering “What is that about?” No one understands the concept better than Davis, who almost ended up with a blank canvas rather than his father’s history.
Early one morning, a cousin called to notify him that his father, Joe Davis, had died. His mother still at the hospital, Davis, a Methodist minister, arranged for Sunday substitutes and packed his family. As he realized how little he knew about his father’s history, “he was hit with an overwhelming feeling of panic.” He had never asked meaningful questions because, as a youngster, he believed that his father “had no stories worth listening to.”
Before leaving, Davis called to tell his mother that they would arrive in about three hours. While dialing, he realized that never again would he hear his father’s booming, “Hello! This is Joe Davis. What can I do for you today?” He dreaded hearing his mother’s phone-shy voice breaking with grief.
Stunned when his father answered, Davis quickly retrieved the receiver from the floor and blurted, “You’re supposed to be dead!” Not only was his father still alive, but Davis would have another twenty-three years to ask questions, which his father happily answered. Davis gradually filled in the canvas, creating this familial, social, and historic treasure preserving bits of Western North Carolina’s history and culture. (The call was not a malicious prank, but a legitimate mistake eventually sorted out.)
Just as a painter primes the canvas, the wisdom of Joe Davis’s parents primed his life’s canvas. After an accident at age five, which crippled him and diminished life’s possibilities, Joe Davis learned from his mother to focus on what he could accomplish rather than bemoaning lost prospects.
After his brothers’ recklessness almost killed one of them, their father said that punishment was in order, but “. . . you know what I always say – if you learn something from what you do, that is better than punishment.” After listening to each boy, he decided to forego corporal punishment.
That last bit of wisdom was another reason Davis had never questioned his father. Joe Davis possessed an almost supernatural sense of his sons’ deeds at any given moment. Usually, rather than immediate corporal punishment, he told a warning story. In “The Cigarette,” for example, Davis and his little brother smugly believe that, even though their father was milking at the time, he knew nothing about their smoking in the barn loft. After supper that evening, they were stunned when he told a story about his father paying to replace a neighbor’s barn that his brothers had destroyed while smoking. In such cases Davis writes, “We knew that he had given us one chance – and that we’d better not try it again.”
As Davis fills in the canvas with his stories, he creates an admirable sense of place, era, and experience. His father and brothers making hay with horses in summer’s heat renews our appreciation for tractors, electricity, and air-conditioning. Driving with Joe Davis and friends from Asheville to Lake Mattamuskeet, on North Carolina’s coast, with no “actual North Carolina road map” makes for a wandering journey. Pride in his wife’s cooking and baking for company almost beams off the page, and in “Two Birthdays” readers glimpse the heart and soul of Joe Davis.
The stories about Joe Davis as a citizen fill in other areas of the canvas. As the installment officer of the First National Bank in Waynesville, North Carolina, Joe Davis was respected and liked because he was fair, honest, and kind. And, in 1953, he dared to cross a line that other people refused to acknowledge.
In “Farther Along” he announces at dinner one night that he approved a car loan for Clarence Shelton. Davis recalls that as his mother “looked almost shocked,” he “sat up and listened” because Shelton was a black man and “the one and only orderly at the Haywood County Hospital.” Granting Shelton the loan “broke records of the past and potentially opened doors that had never been cracked.” As the years passed Joe Davis opened that door to many of Waynesville’s other black citizens.
“Farther Along,” however, contains the book’s only liability, a minstrel show in which Joe Davis and his peers “. . . would sing and dance and . . . [do] things they would not have been caught dead doing in their normal daily activities.” Raising money for the Lions Club was noble, but minstrel shows, under the guise of merry entertainment, degraded black people as lazy, stupid, and shuffling. In light of the life-long friendship and loyalty between Joe Davis and Clarence Shelton, the minstrel show, in which Clarence also participated, leaves readers with a conundrum.
Readers unfamiliar with the art of storytelling will recall their English teacher’s commands to cut the verbiage and to use only pertinent details in conflicts building to the story’s climax. Davis, at first glance, seems to delight in flinging these rules aside. In “Goldie Goldie” he opens with a lengthy explanation about his family’s move to a new home; their first experience with a clothes dryer; and experiments, including gun powder, with his new chemistry set before introducing Goldie.
But then, after listening to Davis, a master storyteller, on You Tube, I realized how little I know about the art of storytelling. Those details that seemed extraneous on paper make Goldie’s quirks all the more startling and memorable.
Kudos to Donald Davis for creating such a moving “picture behind the picture” of his father and for sharing Joe Davis with us. And many thanks for reminding us to start asking about our family’s history now because chances are that we will not have a second chance.
BIO: Donald Davis was born in a Southern Appalachian mountain world rich in stories. While he heard many traditional stories about heroic characters, he was most attracted to the stories of his own family and places of origin. Davis began retelling the stories he heard and then added his own new stories. During his twenty-five year career as a United Methodist minister, Davis began to use stories more and more. He was also asked to perform at festivals and in other settings until he retired from the church to tell stories full time. The author of eighteen books and more than forty original recordings, Davis has received the Circle of Excellence and the Lifetime Achievement Awards from the National Storytelling Network. Contact: ddavisstoryteller.com.
Greeting Fans and Friends:
Mary, I’m happy to report, isn’t shrieking about rumpy-trumpy this month. She is, however, looking dazed because he “lost” the U.S.S. Carl Vinson, a big honker aircraft carrier, and the accompanying ships.
Seems he was sending the armada to lurk off the shore of North Korea to show Short Stuff a thing or two. However, no one had told the Pacific commander so he, as planned, ordered the big honker ships to Australia for long-planned military maneuvers. Four days later, the Navy posted a photo of the armada merrily sailing through the Sundra Strait, about 3,500 miles in the other direction. Oops!
As you can well imagine, the blaming between the White House and military departments amounted to verbal carnage, but Sean Spicer to the rescue. When asked by a reporter about the mix up he replied, “It’s all about process.” Isn’t that just so informative? Oh well! What can we expect from a man who said that not even Hitler stooped to using chemicals? What did Spicer think was in those showers? Chanel No. 5?
Back to the subject. Why does Mary blame rumpy-trumpy for “losing” those big honker ships? Because, once upon a time an American president said, “The buck stops here,” meaning that he would have taken full responsibility for the mix up. I doubt very much if that president would have been invited to Mar-A-Lago or would have attended if he had been.
Purrs and Cream,