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Powerful tale of sorrow revives 1920s

By Kevin Dicus
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
September 14, 1999

William Maxwell's writing is deceptively simple. He tells a classic story with a plot that progresses in logical, related steps. The characters have real and regular relationships. However innocuous it may seem at first, the reader is grabbed by these characters and finds himself caring for these individuals who, in the beginning, seem so average.

"So Long, See You Tomorrow" (Vintage, $10) is a perfect example. Taking place in the 1920s, it focuses on tenant farmers in rural Illinois. It begins when Lloyd Wilson is shot while milking a cow. Although he was a kind and helpful man who had no enemies, the identity of his killer is no mystery. Clarence Smith, a neighboring farmer, and Lloyd had been friends ever since the day Clarence moved his family to the house. Helping each other with their work, they were nearly inseparable. Clarence's wife, Fern, and Lloyd also became inseparable, finding time to see each other and finding reasons to fall more deeply in love with each other. Eventually both families were broken up as a result of the infidelity, and Clarence becomes a broken man. With the town knowing this, it's not a matter of finding who killed Lloyd, but finding Clarence.

However, this plot is of only secondary importance in the book. What "So Long , See You Tomorrow" tenderly deals with is how two boys are affected, not only by this violent act, but by all the events that lead up to it. Cletus Smith, the son of Clarence and Fern, is directly hit by what is happening. The narrator, a more privileged boy in town, is far less affected, but it still haunts him. Even 50 years later, the present time in the novel, the narrator still wonders what Cletus must have gone through. He rebukes himself for not getting more involved in his friend's life.

The construction of this book works wonderfully. Since the narrator himself is not close to the story, the reader stays similarly detached. It's 50 years after the fact and he is trying to recount something of which he has no firsthand knowledge. Through separation, the narrator expresses his regret. The reader stays with him as he desperately clutches at anything, trying to form a story that creates some sort of connection between himself and Cletus.

"If any part of the following mixture of truth and fiction strikes the reader as unconvincing," the narrator tells the reader, "he has my permission to disregard it. I would be content to stick to the facts if there are any."

This is a powerful tale of sorrow and regret presented to us in a wonderfully clear manner. Imaginative and touching, the concerns and feelings of rural children in the 1920s become vibrant and alive. It is this gift of treating the common man with a sensitive hand that makes Maxwell such an effective writer.

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