Book Review: Duck and Cover: A Nuclear Family

By on 5 July, 2017 in Kate and Stephen with 0 Comments

We got a promotional email from the author, or else we never would have known of the book’s existence. It seemed like the kind of service for which we once relied on Capitol Book and News. The book’s title was Duck and Cover: A Nuclear Family, and it was by a former Cloverdale resident. Like catnip, it drew us in. We see those lofts every day behind the facade of the old school, and we wonder about the children who attended daily classes there before it became high-priced apartment living. Kathie Farnell was one of those children, and she’s got a good handful of stories to tell about growing up in Montgomery.

Her autobiography bobs and weaves among momentous historic events in our city – the bus boycott, the Selma to Montgomery march, etc. Farnell keeps these events largely at arms’ length so that they function as background for her particular childhood narrative. The author isn’t trying to leave us with any grand moral statements about civil rights or actionable takeaways. Instead, she’s modestly sketching and contextualizing parts of her life in ways that are easy to relate to, even for those of us who didn’t live through some of the greatest moments in American history.

Most of Farnell’s writing is nicely phrased without showing off. She clips words while telling grade school stories, leaving off the just-so parts of the story seemingly on purpose, to keep us flicking through to the next anecdote. Most of the stories she tells are short, keeping you going through quickly to the end of the book. It makes for great summer reading, as Farnell knows how to spin a yarn without making things too messy. And, as Montgomery residents, there are still parts we can relate to today – Farnell’s mother described driving on the Atlanta Highway as like taking your life into your own hands.

Good autobiographies sit the reader down and ask them to listen while a life’s themes unfold. They lead us along a purposeful story chain that makes the main characters some variant of hero or anti-hero. Small characters pop up. Their needs are met, or their conflicts can’t be resolved. The smattering of extras that populates Farnell’s autobiography really adds depth to her narrative, rounding out what might otherwise be a fairly conventional family memoir. Farnell’s eye for detail shines when describing the residents of her childhood’s Montgomery: Minnie, the hairdresser with the gold tooth; her grandmother, who kept a chamber pot under her bed; Dickie Pate, who sang a song about Hitler; the Vacation Bible School teacher who is horrified that the girls don’t want to learn to sew; Lee, who has a cuckoo clock.

Farnell does a good job of weaving these background characters into a set of stories whose structure is unlike a more typical memoir. Each story is like a little fable, and set all together they’re like glimpses of our city staggered through time.

We did wish there had been more of what the book’s title seemed to advertise: the looming nuclear threat, and how it might have affected a child growing up, but the story about Cloverdale’s preparations for atomic war (or lack thereof) is just a teaser for a book that’s really about family. Farnell takes her parents’ quirks lovingly to task – her father’s a soft touch with a bit of a gambling problem, and her mother is somewhat old-fashioned (though she doesn’t want a punch bowl for Christmas). Her brothers Ray and Clay are lovingly sketched as co-conspirators.

One of the book’s special delights is recognizing Montgomery landmarks. There are some that persist, like Liger’s bakery, and some that have seen their time pass, like the Normandale shopping center. And then there are parts of life here that seem, in retrospect, to be evergreen: the anticipation of a beach trip, the long drive to Mobile, the centrality of churches to life in the city.

Although Farnell’s stories only take us through her ninth grade year, taken together they make a neat, slim package that tells the story of a live lived in tumultuous times. If those times don’t make it into the book, it’s perhaps because they didn’t make it much into Farnell’s daily life, even though the bus boycott did directly affect her household as a child. It would have been interesting to read more about how big issues like race relations and the threat of war affected Farnell’s childhood, but that’s not what readers should expect to get out of this perfectly nice confection of a book. Anyone looking for some well-spun tales about mid-century Montgomery would do well to pick up Farnell’s sharply told book of stories. It would be the perfect complement to an afternoon spent at the beach.

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with one cat, a dog, 10 fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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