(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

The Growing Seasons, Samuel Hynes’s memoir of his formative years during the Great Depression, is an unsentimental yet moving reminiscence of a boy’s life and of an era in American history. The memoir highlights both the commonality of human experience as well as the profound changes that have occurred in American culture since the pre-World War II years. In the preface to the book, Hynes states that “When men and women of my generation speak of ‘before the war,’ they aren’t simply talking about a date in the past; they’re looking back across the great chasm of the Second World War to a time that seems as distant and as different from our present lives as some foreign place.” Although Minneapolis of the 1930’s and 1940’s may be a “foreign place” to most readers, the realities of a boy’s “growing season” remain universal. Readers may not recognize the time, but they do recognize the boy.

The Growing Seasons recounts Hynes’s life from his birth in 1924 to his enlistment as a Marine Corps pilot in 1942. He has only vague, sensory memories of his life before age five, when his mother died. He remembers “how she looked, not from a distance but up close, as a child in its mother’s arms might see her: a small, soft body, a strong face with dark, sad eyes (on the right eyelid a small growth, a mole perhaps), thick chestnut hair coiled in a knot behind.” After his mother’s death, Sam’s father loses his job and takes Samuel and Chuck, Samuel’s older brother, on the road in search of a new job and stability. Although the family moved seven times in three years, often living in boarding houses, Samuel remembers this not as a difficult time but as an adventure and treasures warm memories from each of their stays, however brief. Finally, when Samuel is ten, his father finds a steady job in Minneapolis and marries Nellie, an Irish Catholic widow with three nearly grown children. His father’s choice of bride always puzzled Samuel because his father despised both Roman Catholics and the Irish, and Samuel never came to love Nellie like a mother, but the new family settled in a Sears Roebuck kit house and began their life in south Minneapolis.

Sam remembers the first years in his Minneapolis neighborhood in nearly idyllic terms. Summer days seemed to go on forever as he and his pals, Buck, Cliff, Birdy, and Dickie D., gathered in Apple Alley behind their backyards to organize games of annie annie over or kick the can, needing no equipment but an empty Campbell’s soup can. On other evenings baseball games were organized, using lengths of broomstick for both the bat and the ball and the four street corners as the bases. Sam’s acquisition of a bicycle at age eleven expands the boundaries of his world to the entire south side, including the swimming lakes of Calhoun, Harriet, and Cedar.

Samuel’s world expands even further as he enters his teen years, when, like most American teenagers, he discovers the twin joys of cars and sex. He giddily lists the advantages of having a car, such as taking a girl to the Marigold Ballroom and parking and necking with her after the dance; driving to Cedar Lake in early May to take the first swim of the season; and filling the car with eleven guys and parking in the dark to listen to a scary radio program.

These joys pale a bit, however, compared to the discovery of sex. Samuel devises his own set of “rules for men,” which contrast rather starkly with those his father attempts to instill in him: “A man likes to look at women. A man wants to see women naked. A man wants to touch women’s bodies.” Sam describes his first unexpected look at a girl’s naked body in near-religious terms:

And I on the dark terrace am motionless, rapt, like a worshiper in a church when the service has just ended, or the audience at a concert in that instant of silence after the last chord of a great work of music has faded, the silence that separates the world of art from the ordinary coughing, shuffling life of people. For the first time in my life I have seen a girl in the perfection of her nakedness.

His first sexual relationship, which develops at a girl’s house while her mother is at work, ends abruptly when a nosy neighbor reports his visits to the girl’s mother, who forbids her daughter to...

(The entire section is 1757 words.)