On the surface, seven-year-old Tommy MacAllister appears to have a pretty good life. He has the freedom to run around the neighborhood and get treated to Cokes and funny stories from the neighbors, his parents buy him wonderful gifts like a roll-top desk with drawers that lock, and he gets to spend the summers at the family home on the island. The Depression and the coming war seem to have scarcely touched his idyllic midwestern home.
But that’s just what’s on the surface. This 1984 novel by William McPherson, soon to be rereleased in an NYRB edition, traces a year in Tommy’s life. Over the course of that year, Tommy observes the often mysterious behavior of his parents and neighbors, allowing readers to see the darkness underneath the surface that Tommy himself doesn’t recognize. McPherson uses a third-person limited perspective, revealing only what Tommy sees and thinks about. Because Tommy is a child, he doesn’t always understand what he sees, but he sees a lot. Knowing that he doesn’t understand, neighbors say and do things in front of him that they might not to adults—one neighbor, for example, gives herself a morphine injection in Tommy’s presence. And of course, Tommy is small enough to make himself unseen, as when he hides under the table at a party and sees a neighbor caressing his mother’s leg.
This is not a plot-centered book at all. For most of the book, not much of note happens. The big events are parties and holidays, events that are only special to those experiencing them. But the details are so meticulously rendered that I couldn’t help but be captivated. Although this is very much a book for adults, it reminded of the historical fiction I loved as a child that gave me glimpses of another place and time—what people ate and wore and gave as gifts and how they related to each other, all the customs that held their lives together.
Customs kept the world in its orbit, the river in its course, and Tommy in his bed in the night, but he wasn’t sure their customs were strong enough to sustain all that: the freight was so heavy and the thread so frail. Without customs it seemed to Tommy that there would be no family, and without a family he would have to live in the Evelyn MacCracken Children’s Home, he supposed, on the top of MacCracken Hill, with the other orphans. At least it would be fun to slide down the fire chute from the second-floor window to the ground, if that were allowed.
The customs of the community keep the peace among families and neighbors and the American Indian servants who keep their homes running. But Tommy is right that these customs must bear a heavy weight, and there’s always a threat that the structure will break down. Secrets will be brought into the open, injustices will be redressed, and everything will change. But the customs of secrecy and muttered speculation are pretty strong because practically everyone has a stake in keeping them in place.
This novel is not about dramatic revelations and massive changes but about small, incremental steps toward the future. Day by day, Tommy tests the current of the world around him, trying to see which way the water is flowing and where it will take him and his community as he grows toward adulthood. The steps taken are small and dramatic only in the sense that they could point to bigger changes in the future. For this year, in this novel, however, the big steps must wait.