Time and Place
Bryan Woolley’s novel is a character study of a high-school senior forced by several crises in his life to grow from teenage football hero to responsible adult in a short period of time. On a larger but less intense scale, it is also a study of an entire small town under a siege of terror from an epidemic, a story built upon human relationships among peers and families, between generations and races during a time of mutual stress.
Though the emphasis is on these relationships, and the high quality of this novel is the result of an exceptionally large number of fully developed characterizations for such a relatively short book, the novel is well-titled. One of its many virtues is a sharp delineation of time and place.
The time is the year between August of 1952 and July of 1953, a time that, like all times, is both similar and very different from other years. There is a war in Southeast Asia that most people want to be over, but there is no concentrated peace movement. General Eisenhower is running for President with a little-known Senator named Nixon as his partner. The people of the usually Democratic Southwest are considering voting for the General, who has promised to go to Korea and try to end the war. That fellow Stevenson has been branded an intellectual, which is not good. The people do not appreciate, or even always understand, his dry sense of humor. There has been a drought, and it is not a good crop year. There is an epidemic loose in the land. The people are in neither a humorous nor a contemplative mood.
The epidemic is polio. With Doctor Salk’s vaccine still in the experimental stage, 1952 is the worst polio year on record. It is almost impossible for anyone under the age of thirty-five to imagine the sense of terror that gripped so many people while this terrible disease was on its devastating rampage. One of the impressive feats of Woolley’s realistic yet sensitive novel is that it re-creates the sense of impending horror of the 1952 epidemic so effectively.
The place is Fort Appleby, Texas. Fort Appleby sits at the base of Leaping Panther Mountain, and gets its name from Old Fort Appleby, a minor historical ruin, the parade grounds and decrepit barracks of which perch on the eastern tip of the mountain. Old Fort Appleby, on the southern route of the Overland Trail, had been a stopping point for travelers between San Antonio and El Paso, a place to seek rest and protection from Apache raids. The newer town of Fort Appleby is a small resort area, depending on the “summer people” from Houston and other cities, who have summer cabins on the mountain, for its existence. Otherwise, there are a few surrounding ranches, the largest of which is Carl Birdsong’s Circle-B. There is a small Mexican section, known by the whites as “Little Juarez.” Last, but perhaps most important, if only because of its District Champion six-man football team, is Fort Appleby High.
Woolley’s protagonist is Kevin Adams, high-school senior, aspiring writer who has won the district and regional high-school essay-writing contest, and, along with his best friend, Jasper Birdsong, is an All-District halfback on Coach George Wilson’s championship football team. Under the guidance of his surrogate father, Fort Appleby High principal Jay Eisenbarger, Kevin has developed into one of the most promising young men in Fort Appleby’s admittedly limited history. He is, however, poised at that volatile stage, halfway between manhood and adolescence, when even slight disruptions in the order of things can bring trouble and confusion; and the problems that Kevin will soon see are not going to be slight.
It is the waning days of August, and neither the summer-long drought, nor the war in Korea, nor the national polio epidemic, nor the upcoming national election has had much effect on Fort Appleby. All except the drought are remote from the daily life of this small Texas town, and the summer people have been by to spend their money and help make up for the cattle losses caused by the dry weather. Fort Appleby is looking forward to a good fall, punctuated by an expected repeat of their football championship. Janitor Eduardo Rodriguez is doing his usual thorough job of getting the school cleaned and in working order. Principal Jay Eisenbarger, who had come to Fort Appleby partly to escape the polio menace in Houston, has now mostly overcome his earlier trouble adjusting to small-town life. Though he knows that most of his enthusiasm will be blocked out by deaf ears, he is anxious to get back to his English Literature class and his vernacular efforts at communicating the magic to be found in the work of some of his favorites: “Wild Bill Shackspur,” “Buckle-Shoe Puritan” Hawthorne, “Steamboat Clemens,” and Beowulf, “The Chopper.”
Kevin and Jasper have been riding around, drinking beer and discussing their future with typical adolescent fantasizing. Jasper, determined that he will not spend his life on his father’s Circle-B, wants to go to Princeton because the Ivy League seems to be about as far from cow country as he can get. After Princeton, he thinks he might go to Hollywood, become a leading man, and make love to a bevy of starlets. Kevin wants to be a writer, “like Hemingway,” and have romantic adventures in...
(The entire section is 2166 words.)