Richard Rhodes has written ten books, evenly divided between fiction and non-fiction. Although his novels have been generally well-received, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1987), which won a Pulitzer Prize, is his best-known work. A more recent book, Farm: A Year in the Life of an American Farmer (1989), suggests Rhodes’s considerable literary range. Readers of these two books will realize that A Hole in the World unites themes of both and demonstrates how his childhood impressed upon him the threat of violence and the sustaining rhythm of agriculture.
Rhodes’s subtitle for the present volume summons images of the American heartland and of fond recollections of adulthood’s nurturing preliminaries. Another version of American boyhood insists on the necessity of breaking away, of setting off down the river in the manner of Huckleberry Finn. In a number of ways, Rhodes’s book defies expectations.
Though a Midwesterner, Rhodes spent his early years not on a family farm or in an idyllic small town, but in the Kansas City metropolitan area. Until he was ten, he, his older brother Stanley, and his father lived in a series of boardinghouses. Rhodes evokes beautifully the urban scene during the years just before and during World War II—the ragman in his wagon, the iceman delivering fifty-pound chunks, the summer polio watch, the burning of autumn leaves, or the flattened wash emerging from the wringer washer. The Rhodes boys had no real home, however, and they had no mother. They had instead what the author has chosen to call “a hole in the world.”
Like Huck Finn, Stanley and Richard were cursed with a wicked parent, not their father, but a wicked stepmother who seems to have stepped out of a fairy tale, seemingly unmotivated but unfortunately real. If it ever occurred to young Richard to take to the Missouri River as Huck did to the Mississippi, he does not mention the thought. “To light out for the Territory,” as Huck puts it, thereby physically escaping from the afflictions of everyday life, was not in the cards. Instead, the boys stayed and struggled with their unhappy existence until they finally escaped it in the modern institutional way, through police, social workers, the court, and an orphanage.
When Rhodes was thirteen months old, Stanley, who was not yet three, found their mother dead in the bathroom. She had contrived to blow her own head off with a shotgun. Rhodes calls her a “Depression casualty,” implying that personal depression, perhaps as a consequence of her husband’s thoughtlessness—for Arthur Rhodes seems never to have been actively cruel—may have driven her to suicide. Her absence is the main fact of the author’s first ten years, which occupy the first third of the book.
Arthur Rhodes worked for the railroad and seems to have done his best to provide for his sons. Stanley and Richard had to witness one ugly scene: Their landlord pulled a knife on their father, whom the former suspected (wrongly, it appears) of improper attentions to his wife. On this occasion, Stanley stole off to the kitchen and provided both his father and himself with knives of their own, at which point the landlord backed down and even tried to make a joke of the incident. Rhodes tells this story primarily to demonstrate the courage and resourcefulness of the one person in his early life whom he could admire unreservedly. For the most part, life was meager and repulsive.
The second stage of the boys’ life began in 1947 when Arthur Rhodes was remarried. Anne Martin was a woman of no great charm or beauty, who nevertheless attracted men. Married several times previously, she was then forty-eight, and Arthur was fifty- four. He then proceeded to stand by and allow her to bully and deprive his two boys in a shocking manner. They were not permitted to eat with their parents nor even to eat comparable fare. Rhodes devotes a chapter to the agonies and subterfuges brought on by her refusal to allow him access to the bathroom at night to relieve himself. She beat them and attempted to convert their leisure time entirely to running errands and selling various household items in the neighborhood, with the profits all accruing to her. One of her most despicable acts was to reveal abruptly and unfeelingly the mode of their natural mother’s death.
Among the snapshots that illustrate this book is one—also reproduced on the dustcover—which shows the boys, emaciated and troubled, flanking and clinging to their father, whose look is somewhat akin to that of a whipped dog. Across the lower half of Richard’s body lies a shadow—that of his stepmother, who took the picture. Life with this appalling woman lasted only two and a half years but seemed endless to the boys, and Rhodes properly extends this period into the second third of the book. Stanley averted the horrors of home by spending hours wandering the labyrinthine underground storm drains of Kansas City; Richard took refuge in reading whenever possible.
In 1949, the...
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