The Lost Boy by Thomas Wolfe

…Light came and went and came again, the booming strokes of three o’clock beat out across the town in thronging bronze, light winds of April blew the fountain out in rainbow sheets, until the plume returned and pulsed, as Grover turned into the Square.

Thomas Wolfe, The Lost Boy

The Lost Boy, a novella by Thomas Wolfe is a surprising gem of a story. A fictionalized portrait of the author’s elder brother, who died of typhoid fever at age twelve, the novella consists of four parts each told from a different point of view. The first is a third person narrative that presents an important afternoon in Grover’s life. We see him at home, roaming around the town square, going from shop to shop. He builds up his nerve and purchases 15 cents worth of fudge from the stingy candy shop owner who is angered that Grover pays him in stamps and insists he return three one cent stamps the boy mistakenly gave him. Afraid that the store keeper will accuse him of stealing the stamps, he confesses to his father who takes dramatic action to correct the situation.

The second and third parts look at Grover from the point of view of his mother, who has always held that Grover was the smartest of her children, and his sister, who can’t quite believe that the author does not remember Grover more than he does. The interesting story here is that of the mother. She relates the tale of a train ride from St. Louis to Indiana and how proud she is that her son insists a black man return to the proper passenger car once they enter Indiana even though Jim Crow laws do not apply there. This part of the novella was excised by Wolfe’s editors in early editions, but I’d have to support it’s inclusion in this version. Wolfe is telling it like it was, showing us that his mother’s belief that Grover was the best of her children is wrapped up in the prejudices they shared. It’s not a flattering portrait but it does help explain why she felt his loss so deeply.

It’s in the final part of the novel, a largely first person account of the author/narrator’s attempt to visit the St. Louis house his family lived in and his brother Grover died in, that the particular power of this novella and Wolfe’s writing comes to fruition. That you can’t go home again comes as no surprise to any fan of Thomas Wolfe, but no one portrays that particular sense of loss as well as he does. In The Lost Boy we not only morn the passing of the world and people of our youth, we morn a particular loss, a particular person. It’s not just the sometimes vague, sometimes tangible sense that something has passed out of our lives forever, there really is someone missing this time.

 

I first ran this review in March of 2008 on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. where it got over 3500 views making it one of my more successful posts.  I’ve no idea why it got so many views.  Does Thomas Wolfe have some large underground following waiting and anxious to read about him?  Were large numbers of people looking for a 1980’s Kiefer Sutherland teen vampire movie simply led to the wrong post?  I’ve not idea, but I’m hoping at least as many people will find there way over to this new blog now that I’ve moved the post over here.

However, looking back at this review I notice two faults.  For one thing it really just stops abruptly without coming to a conclusion.  There should have been a few more sentences to wrap things up.  Second, I really did gloss over the racial issues in the book.  In the years since reading it what I remember most is the scene on the train and the how uncomfortable it made me feel to see how proud his mother was over his brother’s racism.  I still agree that it’s an important scene to include in the novella, but I should have addressed it more or addressed it differently.  There’s much more to say about it than simply excusing it as an honest portrait of his lost brother.  Why did Thomas Wolfe feel it was necessary to include it?  

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