Book Review: “I Never Called Him Pa”

By TINKY WEISBLAT

For the Recorder 

Published: 04-21-2023 8:10 PM

The rise of self-publishing has changed both books and book reviewing. A few years ago, this paper decided to stop reviewing self-published books. The editors soon reversed this decision, realizing that most books by local authors (our focus) were and are self-published.

Big publishers are increasingly consolidating, and they hesitate to take on new authors. The road to traditional publication (finding an agent, proving one’s “worth” by demonstrating a pre-existing audience through social media, etc.) is now too rocky for most writers.

Self-publishing lets those writers share their voices with the world.

Consequently, books of varying quality hit my “to read” pile. Some have promise but really need someone to edit them. Some are, frankly, just awful. From time to time, I receive a book to review that is an unmitigated pleasure to read. “I Never Called Him Pa” by Diane Kane is such a book.

Kane lives in Phillipston, and “Pa” is her first full-length novel. She has published children’s books and short stories in the past. Her novel deftly paints a portrait of a memorable family and community.

Opening in 1948, the book is narrated by Henry, who is 5 at the outset of the story. He lives in the farming community of Mendota, Illinois. The author notes in a preface that Mendota is a real town but that the characters and the story she puts in it are imaginary.

Henry has no idea who his father was. His pretty, flirtatious mother flits in and out of his life, hitting the road for years at a time with a series of boyfriends. The anchor of his life is his maternal grandmother, who serves as his primary caregiver.

Like many young children, Henry is fascinated by the trains that pass through town. He also develops an interest in the hobos who create makeshift homes in train boxcars. Shortly after Henry turns 7, he gets to know one of those hobos.

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Ernest is a large Black man whose health forces him to take a break from boxcar living. He is in weak condition, suffering from sickle cell anemia. Henry’s grandmother lets him live in her shed as he tries to recover.

As Ernest becomes stronger, he forges a bond with both Henry and Henry’s “Gram.” The former hobo earns his keep by doing chores around the farm. More importantly, he teaches Henry by example to live a life of generosity, love and honor.

Neighbors in Mendota, most of whom have never seen a Black person, range in reaction from cautiously friendly to downright racist. Ernest is targeted by one family and is even put on trial for the attempted murder of one of Henry’s young friends.

He is exonerated, however, and slowly wins the affection and respect of the entire community.

Diane Kane confesses at the end of her book that she felt a certain amount of trepidation writing about the experience of a Black person in 1950s America, given that she is not Black herself.

The book does suffer a little from what one might call “Sidney Poitier syndrome;” that is, it focuses on an almost saintly African American who teaches life lessons to a white community, as Poitier’s character does in several films.

Nevertheless, the book and its characters are so full of love and humor that it is hard to find fault with “I Never Called Him Pa.” Diane Kane tells a moving, colorful story with characters who feel real and touch the reader’s heart. I read the book in one day and would read another book by Kane (I hope she writes one) in a heartbeat.

The book may be ordered from online and local bookstores. It is available for sale at the Petersham Country Store and the New Salem General Store.

Tinky Weisblat is an award-winning author and singer. Her most recent book is “Pot Luck: Random Acts of Cooking.” Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.

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