James Still’s richly evocative style, particularly the sensuousness of his imagery, brings to stirring life the full range of a young boy’s introduction to experience. The anonymity of the boy narrator (readers never learn his Christian name) adds to the mythic dimension of his point of view. He recalls Wordsworth’s persona in the early books of the poet’s famous autobiography in verse, The Prelude: raised by the “ministries of beauty and fear,” like the young Wordsworth, Brack’s “boy” is initiated into the fullness of nature.
What distinguishes Still’s novel from the Romantic nature myth is the book’s stark realism. Wordsworth’s child fears strange spirits that haunt dark coves; Still’s narrator fears hunger. Nothing makes a greater impression in this book than the many descriptions of hunger and its psychological and moral implications. The primary urge is to get enough to eat, and it supplies almost all of the motivation and action.
At the beginning of the novel, Alpha announces to her husband: “We have enough bran for three more pans of bread. If the children eat it by themselves, it might last a week. It won’t last us all more than three meals. Your kin will have to go today.” With that kind of stark alternative, the story takes on the epic dimensions of a struggle for elemental survival. Later, when Brack brings home a table full of food, which he purchases on credit after being taken on at the coal mine, the family reacts as if he had returned from battle with an immense treasure: “We looked in wonder, not being able to speak, knowing only that a great hunger stirred inside us, and that our tongues were moistening our lips. The smell of meat and parched coffee hung in the room.”
In addition to its realism, the story is marked by compassionate humor. Uncle Silas and his mysteriously clipped moustache together with Uncle Jolly, the hopeless but lovable jailbird, balance the boy’s tragic education with joy.