Ernest J Gaines’ “A Long Day in November” is being published as a young adult book, but it has a lot to offer readers of any age.
Released through Fort Greene-based Ig Publishing’s Lizzie Skurnick Books imprint in November last year, Gaines’ novel brings readers into the life of six-year-old Sonny, denizen of a world entirely unfamiliar to most of us.
Sonny is the child of plantation sharecroppers in 1930s or ’40s Louisiana, though the actual work of sharecropping is only a small part of the story. In the book’s opening, Sonny is pulled from bed by his mother, Amy, who is leaving Sonny’s father. Over the course of a long day, Sonny bounces between competing factions of his family, attends school, and accompanies his father, Eddie, on his quest to win back Amy’s love.
Through Sonny’s eyes we learn, indirectly, a great deal about the lives of this sharecropping community. We see their homes and workplaces, their aspirations and preoccupations, and their currencies of respect and friendship.
Even when well-intentioned, writing about extremely poor people is often paternalistic, guilty of idealizing or exoticizing its subjects. But these are pitfalls Gaines avoids, treating his impoverished characters as humans, and allowing their lives to be normal instead of examples presented in contrast to normality. Gaines himself came from a background similar to Sonny’s, and “A Long Day in November” is testament to how lived, earned insight can produce a superior written experience.
The writing is so full of sly humor that just holding the book seems to warm your hands. The desperation with which Eddie pursues reunion makes for some extremely funny exchanges, and while Gaines never passes overt judgements on his characters, you can feel him smiling as he writes the richly vituperative insults of Sonny’s grandmother.
There is also a lot to enjoy in young Sonny’s deadpan, matter-of-fact narration. Gaines expertly handles two sides of childhood innocence — both the faith children have in adults (whether those adults in fact know what they’re doing or not), and the way children’s seemingly artless questions or observations can lay bare the truth.
One of the great pleasures of reading is encountering a relatable experience or truth in a new guise. To recognize familiar human foibles playing out in a set of specifics different from our own is to glimpse the eyes of a friend behind a mask. This is one of the most profound experiences literature can offer us — the synaptic lightning-strike of recognition across differences of time, geography, and culture. It is an experience of connection that, through the all-too-human misadventures of his characters, Gaines provides abundantly.
“A Long Day in November” is an engaging, funny story told well, and a book that will provoke thought and conversation in readers adult or otherwise.
“A Long Day in November” is available at Greenlight Bookstore [686 Fulton St. between S. Elliott Place and S. Portland Avenue in Fort Greene, (718) 246–0200, www.greenlightbookstore.com].