In the Family Way: A Novel

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"Two weeks after my brother Mitchell was killed, my mother finally emerged from her bedroom, hair...
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Overview

                                                                      
"Two weeks after my brother Mitchell was killed, my mother finally emerged from her bedroom, hair uncombed, eyes puffy and wide. She said nothing to us, who watched her cross the floor to the bathroom, where she emptied the medicine cabinet. She stepped into the living room holding a waste can full of medicine bottles and announced that she had become a Christian Scientist. . . . I didn't know what Christian Science was, but I could see it had enabled my mother to walk from her bedroom and speak to us, and I was grateful for that."
        
In early 1960s South Carolina, Jeru Lamb is ten years old and trying to come to terms with his brother's death.    He's also trying to understand his mother's conversion to Christian Science, his father's literary ambitions (and       recent calling as "a Waffle House mystic"), the racial landscape of the segregated South, and a new classmate from the wrong side of town who claims to be his half-sister. "It was not lost on me that by expecting the worst every breathing moment, I backed into prophecy once in a while," says Jeru, and when his mother finds herself "in the family way"--against her doctor's orders--Jeru is left to wonder just what he might lose next.

Tommy Hays's first novel, Sam's Crossing, won accolades from critics nationwide. The New York Times Book Review called it "touching and funny--and revealing of the intricate workings of the human heart." The San Francisco Chronicle said it was "witty and engaging . . . [a novel that] explores the risks and rewards--vulnerability, compromise, intimacy and strength--of love." In the Family Way shows the maturation of this talented writer as he depicts, with heartbreaking simplicity, the end of things we love and the extraordinary capacity to begin again. And in Jeru Lamb he has created an engaging young narrator who takes us to the center of his world and its generous secrets.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"What a lovely novel. . . . In this sweet, dark, heartfelt family story, Tommy Hays has conjured up our lost American innocence without ever giving in to nostalgia. I surrendered on page one."    --Richard Russo

"In this wry and compassionate novel, the narrator's family life is mysterious and beautiful, a kind of communal secret that everyone somehow knows. Tommy Hays has a gift for small details and large themes, and his novel radiates a kind of unsentimental sweetness and generosity that is quite rare in American writing."      --Charles Baxter

"In the Family Way is the kind of book that works a gentle magic. . . . Readers are going to welcome its wisdom."                              --Josephine Humphreys

"Hays gives us a vivid new guide to the familiar territory of childhood. . . . An eloquent, suspenseful, and highly readable novel."      --Margot Livesey

"In the Family Way examines the tragedies, both large and small, that pull families apart and oddly can also bring them back together. Hays tells this story in spare but affecting language, but mostly he tells it from the heart."     --Ann Hood

"Tommy Hays has really found his voice, and it's not only a wryly entertaining one, it's wise. That voice folded me into the pages of In the Family Way and, like the haunting strains of a beautiful song, stays with me."   --Louise Shivers

From the Hardcover edition.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A snapshot of a Southern boy's coming-of-age in 1960s South Carolina, Hays's second novel cleverly uses the turbulence of the decade to contextualize one family's problems but never lets the drama of the era overwhelm his story. Ten-year-old, overweight Jeru Lamb is confused and guilt-ridden over his eight-year-old brother Mitchell's recent death. Mitchell was attacked and killed by a dog belonging to a neighbor, a black man, and for Jeru, the difficult work of parsing out changing race relations begins. Other things are changing, too: his mother has converted to Christian Science and is expecting another child against the advice of doctors ("`Death,' she becomes fond of repeating, `is the ultimate illusion'"); his father quits his copywriting job to write the novel he types furiously in the basement; his best friend's parents are getting divorced; and one afternoon, the smartest girl in his class, skinny and poor Norma Jones, suddenly slips him a note that reads, "I am your half-sister." It's quite a world for one boy to navigate, where the metamorphoses of his family bring as many dramatic joys as traumas. Jeru desperately misses his dead brother, but he warms to his family's new dimensions; besides Norma, a new baby sister is born. Jeru's ingenuousness and wry humor are particularly endearing; Hays (Sam's Crossing) avoids succumbing to the temptation to imbue his narrator with an older-than-his-years sensibility. Jeru's actions are frequently impulsive, na ve, and occasionally insensitive ("Uncle Clem says some Negroes are just no 'count," he blurts out to the family's black housekeeper as they pass a homeless man). The welcome result is a believable young hero grappling with family life in a new way. This richly textured story triumphs with its multifaceted characters and genuinely affectionate sensitivity. Agent, Jennifer Hengen at Sterling Lord Literistic. (July) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The protagonist of Hays's strong second novel (after Sam's Crossing) is a ten-year-old boy named Jeru Lamb, whose relatively idyllic life is suddenly shattered by tragedy: a neighbor's dog works free of its chain, attacks Jeru's younger brother, and kills him. This catastrophic event leads to complications. Jeru's mother becomes a Christian Scientist and then quickly becomes pregnant against her doctor's advice. Jeru's father quits his job at an ad agency, starts work on a book, and, as Jeru accidentally discovers, begins to look for a woman who had borne him a child many years ago. Jeru, who functions primarily as an observer in this quietly affecting novel set in South Carolina during the early 1960s, must deal with his own feelings of confusion, guilt, and grief as he patiently waits for his parents to right themselves. By the end of the novel, after an arduous healing process, they have. Recommended for libraries with large contemporary fiction collections.--Patrick Sullivan, Manchester Community-Technical Coll., CT Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The influences of Harper Lee and Anne Tyler are strongly present in this winning, if borderline-sentimental, second novel by the author of the wistful Sam's Crossing (1993). "I spent a large part of my childhood on the other side of doors or just around corners," Jeru Lamb confesses—while narrating in retrospect the story of his afflicted family's attempts to heal itself in the aftermath of a loss that coincided with the assassination of a beloved President (JFK) and the dying spasms of segregation in their complacent South Carolina hometown (Greenville). The shadow cast over them was the death of Jeru's younger brother Mitchell, when a dog the boys had always teased broke loose and savagely mauled Mitchell—a fate that guilt-ridden Jeru narrowly escaped. The Lambs (a beautifully chosen name) cope with their loss in various ways dictated by their differing natures. Jeru's mother Muriel resorts to Christian Science and becomes pregnant again—to the despair of her husband Warren, who has quit his job and works obsessively at a book whose subject he won't reveal. And Jeru—an engaging ten-year-old compound of naïveté and precocious insight—tiptoes around the edges of his family's other secrets, slowly maturing into the realization that other people's (seemingly remote) lives are every bit as sorrowful and fascinating as his own. Hays filters through Jeru's increasingly sophisticated consciousness a moving picture of small-town racial relations in 1963, as well as fully rounded characterizations of even initially marginal figures like Jeru's resourceful Aunt Louise and Uncle Clem, and the preternaturally knowing Norma Jones, a schoolmate who holds the keyto all he doesn't know about his family. Not a totally original story (there's a lot of To Kill a Mockingbird in it), but a mighty appealing one. Oprah will want to check out Tommy Hays.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812992472
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/29/1999
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Tommy Hays grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, and was educated at Furman University and the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. His first novel was Sam's Crossing. Hays teaches at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and at the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts. He lives in Asheville with his wife and two children.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

In the Family Way

Two weeks after my brother Mitchell was killed, my mother finally emerged from her bedroom, hair uncombed, eyes puffy and wide. She said nothing to us, who watched her cross the floor to the bathroom, where she emptied the medicine cabinet. She stepped into the living room holding a waste can full of medicine bottles and announced that she had become a Christian Scientist.

The year was 1962. I was nine and didn't know what Christian Science was. But I could see it had enabled my mother to walk from her bedroom and speak to us, and I was grateful for that.

She had taken Mitchell's death harder than any of us. She had grown up in a family of early deaths. Her grandmother had died giving birth to her mother, Grace, who, in turn, had died giving birth to a stillborn daughter. Her father, Jeru, so grieved these losses that he died three years later, at the age of forty-one, of a heart attack. My mother and her brother Charlie then went to live with their great-aunt and great-uncle, Louise and Clem Marshbanks. Brother and sister, Louise and Clem became my mother's surrogate parents and, eventually, my surrogate grandparents.

Mitchell was almost eight when he was killed, and I was the only witness. Death had made my family conspicuous. We buried Mitchell alongside my grandparents in Springwood, Greenville's downtown cemetery. My mother often visited his grave on her way home from the newspaper, where she worked. She said our grandparents and Mitchell didn't actually die, she claimed no one died. "Death," she was fond of repeating, "is the ultimate illusion."

My father took solace in my mother's discovery of Christian Science. It justified his own religious preoccupations. Ever since his college days, he had read and studied books of the great Eastern religions, but after Mitchell was killed, he immersed himself in them with a new zeal. He resigned from his job at the advertising agency and began to write a novel. He kept strange hours. For him, church became a late-night diner where he discussed the Buddha over a cup of coffee with a road-weary trucker. Mitchell's death drove both my parents to religion: My mother, a Southern Baptist, turned Christian Scientist, and my father, a midwestern Presbyterian, became a Waffle House mystic.

Mitchell's death put me off God. I didn't trust a deity who allowed what had happened to Mitchell in the Moores' field that afternoon. I placed my faith in the pioneers, inventors, and baseball players whose stories I devoured nightly. In my personal sect, the holy trinity was Daniel Boone, Lou Gehrig, and Thomas Alva Edison. Since Mitchell's death I had become obsessed with biographies and read under the covers with a flashlight late into the night, losing myself in the abridged lives of great men.

The nights I couldn't read, when the words sat there on the page, being their secret selves, leading me nowhere, I relived the afternoon Mitchell and I had been playing along the creek bank, in the field next to Uncle Clem and Aunt Louise's house. I see the German shepherd, its broken chain trailing behind, tear across the creek from the direction of Colored Town. The dog charges through the high grass, not barking, not even growling. We run, but I am heavy and slow. I might be screaming. When Mitchell sees the German shepherd gain on me, he drops back, and I run past him. He holds out his opened hand to the dog. I hear him speak; the words seem to be whispered in my ear. "Here, boy. Come here, boy. It's all right." Mitchell has pulled off this trick before, and I have a second to believe it will work before the dog takes him down. Uncle Clem appears at the edge of the field with his .22. Two Negro boys splash through the creek, calling the dog. The rifle fires in the air, but the dog doesn't run. Uncle Clem beats it off Mitchell with the butt of the gun, then shoots it three times.

My last memory of Mitchell is him standing there, hand out, palm up, offering himself as he always offered himself to everyone and everything. That is how Aunt Louise said I should remember him. Never mind that I had my back to him, that I was running and could not have seen it. She said I should hang on to that image and forget about afterward because that was no longer Mitchell.

From the Hardcover edition.

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