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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Growing Up Confused in a Time Not Unlike Our Own

Huckleberry Hill, a review by Patricia Pierannunzi

Huckleberry Hill, is the third novel by playwright, novelist, and Newport Mercury theater critic, David W. Christner, who was born in Tennessee, but, after a stint with the U.S. Navy in Vietnam and Norfolk, VA, returned to Rhode Island where he had attended Officer Candidate School.

He lived in Wakefield, Newport and Middletown before settling in Saunderstown with Linda Thomas, his wife of 20 years.

Among his plays, The Wall; Bui-Doi: The Dust of Life; Thy Brother’s Wife; Red Hot Mamas; The Babe, The Bard and the Baron; The Bitch of Baily’s Beach; Ezra and Evil; What About Mimi?; and This Blood's For You have been finalists or winners in national/international playwriting competitions.

His plays have been produced in Australia, Japan, Belgium, India and Canada, as well as in the U.S. His comedy Red Hot Mamas was recently translated into Russian and Italian for productions in those countries.

Speculations on the cosmos, sex, war, religion, injustice, environmental exploitation, aging, women’s issues, the homeless and capital punishment form the thematic content of his plays and novels, much of which finds its way into this laugh-out-loud, yet quite serious, coming of age story.

Christner's third novel "will surely touch your heart."
Ezra Nori-Thorpe Casey, a boy of Japanese, Native American and Irish heritage, living in the Bible Belt of Oklahoma, finds life both amazing and confusing. A wide-eyed innocent, Ezra is an adolescent with questions that run the gamut from ‘what is the nature of man’ to what are these new hairs sprouting up in completely unexpected places. He gets few answers.

On page one we find Ezra locked in a church steeple facing the shotgun of a Baptist preacher who is determined that he marry his daughter. The story moves backwards from there in bits and pieces as Ezra spends his time locked up by writing down the whole account as he tries to figure it all out for himself. 
That’s why I’m going to the considerable trouble, not to mention the humiliation, of filling in the Big Chief tablet Preacher gave me with the necessary background information to reconstruct the catastrophe that took place on Huckleberry Hill. But even if I can’t make any sense out of it, maybe somebody else can, and if that information keeps just one poor kid from making the same mistakes I did, I’ll consider the world to be a better place to live. Not that I consider it a bad place now, considering the lack of viable alternatives, but it could use some improvement. 
A key figure in Ezra’s life is his grandfather, Doc. But as Ezra tells us, “Doc wasn’t a doctor at all; at least not the kind that makes people well when they’re sick. Fact is, he dealt me a nearly fatal dose of metaphysics before I had a real clear understanding of the Hardy boys.”

In fact, Doc holds a Doctor of Philosophy degree and had been a college professor for over thirty years. Now he focuses on opening up Ezra’s narrow world to the study of Plato, Galileo, Hegel, Kant, Descartes and Sartre. He also encourages Ezra to go to the Free Baptist meetings so he could get two sides of the story. You might see where the confusion comes in.

Christner wants the reader to become aware of that confusion and to understand its real nature. When he visited the Carolina Fiber and Fiction Center and was asked where he gets his story ideas, he said they first come from a social issue that is concerning him.

Then he approaches the issue in story form and with humor. In the case of Huckleberry Hill, the issue that concerned him were repercussions of the rise of the so-called Moral Majority in the late ‘70s when its leaders thought the country was in cultural decline and encouraged conservative Christians to preserve “traditional family values” by denouncing the growing cultural acceptance of more liberal ideas.

Ezra is smack in the middle of this religious reformation and is trying to forge his own path through it. In one scene, Ezra attends a tent revival where the preacher has him by the arms but Ezra frees himself from “the vise grip of salvation.”

As he makes a break for it, the preacher yells after him, “Think of your soul, boy, you’ll roast in everlastin’ hell if you don’t follow Jesus. It’s evil not to follow the path of the Lord.”

However, having studied the Crusades of the 11th and 12th centuries with Doc, Ezra has a more complex view of evil, which he thinks about while walking through the streets of Mansfield after his escape from “salvation.” 
Frankly, I don’t think Jesus would have had anything to do with the crusades, his being The Prince of Peace and all. Jesus never would have said, “Go ye therefore and loot and kill and burn and plunder in the name of the Holy Father.” . . . He was dead set against violence; made him sick to his stomach and gave him an ache in his heart. 
Ezra tries with all his might to figure out his place in life and suffers the trials of growing up, most often in a state of utter confusion but always with genuine honesty. Through his questioning of the inconsistencies he finds all around him, we readers are led to notice hypocrisies, think a bit more beneath the surfaces of life and the easy answers so readily available to us, and move toward a more authentic, thoughtful way of living.

Ultimately, Ezra is a thinker. Listen to his musings while locked in the tower of the church:           
Wandering over to the window I stuffed my hands in my pockets and stared out at our town. In the luster of the soft morning light it was quite a pretty place.  The red roofs of the white frame houses stood out in a crisscross pattern of neatly laid streets. From up here it looked so peaceful but I knew it wasn’t that peaceful. The town was really like the river, all smooth and quiet, hardly a ripple on the surface, but underneath the current was strong, always pulling you down to its depths, and there were eddies and whirling pools on the undercut banks that could pull you down and hold you until the life drained right out of you. . . .  Even so Mansfield for the most part is a good place, full of good people and good times for a kid growing up. Or at least trying to.           
Huckleberry Hill is told in Ezra’s voice and a powerful voice it is. We hear the agonizing he goes through while trying to make sense of what he has learned, what he sees within the streets of his own small town, and what has happened within his own life.

He struggles with it all as he grows toward maturity and we cheer him on, encourage him to find his own truths. This coming-of-age story is told with warm sensitivity and also with rollicking humor. You will laugh out loud and maybe even shed a tear. I know I did both. However so, this book will surely touch your heart.

Christner’s drama depicting RI’s prominent part in the early American slave trade, A Little Lower than the Angels, was selected for a professional stage reading to take place in Manhattan on November 12, 2106. His fourth novel, The Bride Wore Red, was published in February. His work is available for purchase on Amazon.

Patricia Pierannunzi lives in Narragansett with her husband Anthony, who is always the first person to read her writing. She is retired after thirty-three years in education, five of which were spent as a writing coach for students and teachers. She has been published in Educational Leadership magazine; the old, but wonderful, Rhode Island Sunday magazine; and the Writers’ Circle Anthologies of 2008 and 2010. She is currently writing with the Carolina Fiber and Fiction Center.