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The Schooling of Claybird Catts

The Schooling of Claybird Catts

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by Janis Owens

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To be perfectly honest, the day my father died really wasn't the worst day of my life.

When his beloved father, Michael, dies, Claybird Catts finds solace in the company of his close-knit family -- his mysterious and beautiful mother, Myra; his lovable, know-it-all sister, Missy; his newly grown-up brother, Simon; and his devoted


To be perfectly honest, the day my father died really wasn't the worst day of my life.

When his beloved father, Michael, dies, Claybird Catts finds solace in the company of his close-knit family -- his mysterious and beautiful mother, Myra; his lovable, know-it-all sister, Missy; his newly grown-up brother, Simon; and his devoted grandmother, Cissie. Devastated by his loss, but secure in their love, Claybird feels as though life could almost go on as usual in their small, sleepy Southern hometown.

Until Uncle Gabe comes back.

A stranger to Claybird, Uncle Gabe is a brilliant academic who disappeared twenty years ago. Despite the deep mystery that surrounds him, Gabe's humor and intellect shine, and he quickly positions himself in the role of the Catts family's patriarch, filling the role of Claybird's dead father. Gabe and Claybird become coconspirators and best friends, until a slip of the tongue unveils the real history of their relationship, a heart-wrenching revelation that turns Claybird's world upside down.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Owens's third novel about the Florida Catts family covers much of the same territory as the earlier volumes, but her fans will likely enjoy this affectionate portrait of teenage narrator Clayton "Claybird" Catts. Clayton is 11 when his beloved father, Michael, dies, the first event that intrudes into Clayton's innocence. He had idealized Michael, but his relationship with his mother, Myra, is chillier; he and his best friend decide that she is a vampire, though the real reason behind her grim pallor is her dependence on a pharmacopoeia of antidepressants that leave her unable to sleep or tan. After Michael's death, his brother, Gabe, moves in with the Cattses, and eventually marries Clayton's mother. Clayton and his siblings, Sim and Missy, like Gabe well enough, in spite of the eyebrow-raising arrangement. But two years later, just before he starts high school, Clayton learns a secret about his family that drives him to leave the house and move in with his aunt. Clayton narrates these events retrospectively while describing his first year in high school. He's dyslexic and his self-esteem is heartbreakingly low ("being the token idiot in a family of child geniuses has always been a burden to me"), but, as his narration reveals, he is imaginative and perceptive. Owens infuses the story with warm humor as she traces Clayton's gradual, poignant reconciliation to his less-than-perfect family. (Mar.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Owens's third about the Sims and Catts family of north Florida (Myra Sims, 1999, etc.) can too often seem a reworking of its two predecessors. Clayton "Catbird" Catts, now in high school, is a problematical young narrator, seeming too perceptive and knowledgeable for his age-though he says often enough that he's stupid and dumb and should have been more astute. Labeled dyslexic (he was in Special Education during elementary school), he recalls for us how he came to move out of his own grand but haunted house and into his aunt Candace's smaller one. But his life really changed, he contends, when he was 11 and his father, Michael, died from cancer-and when Uncle Gabe, his father's younger brother, came home for the funeral and then stayed. The dead Michael had worked hard, eventually became rich, and had married Myra Sims, who'd once lived next door with her abusive father. Michael fixed up an old house in the country where he and Myra raised their three children-Sim, Missy, and Clayton. Michael was the perfect father, and although Clayton loved his mother, he sensed something strange about her-his best friends said she was a vampire because she came out only at night-and the day Michael died was the worst day of Clayton's life. Gabe, who'd come home at the request of the dying man, after a year married Myra, having loved her since childhood. The children seemed not to mind-they liked Gabe, who reminded them so much of Michael-but on the weekend before he started high school, Clayton's grandmother absent-mindedly remarked that Clayton resembled his daddy Gabe more each day. Hurt and shocked, Clayton thus moves in with his aunt, who tells him the truth about his family. And his mother, whoalso tells all, helps him accept the idea that Michael was his father in every way but the biological, and that Clayton can mourn him still. Warm and affirming, yes, though Clayton still stretches the credulity. Agent: Joy Harris/Joy Harris Literary Agency
Boston Globe
“Thoroughly engaging ... Owens has beautifully and convincingly captured the lilting rhythms and cadences of a Southern childhood.”
Orlando Sentinel
“A sumptuous, life-affirming treat.”

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Read an Excerpt

The Schooling of Claybird Catts

By Janis Owens


ISBN: 0060090626

Chapter One

To be perfectly honest, the day my father Michael died really wasn't the worst day of my life.

Of course, it has panned out to be the worst, but at the time, it was just the last day in a week of one fun thing after another, all part of what I later learned was a carefully constructed plot to distract us children from the inevitable. Every night my brother Simon and my sister Missy and me were wined and dined by different friends and kin, making for a fast, hectic week that peaked on Saturday, when my best friend Kenneth's Uncle Lou, who is full-blooded Italian (like Kenneth wishes he was) and very sympathetic to Daddy's plight, took Kenneth and me to Busch Gardens as he works for Anheuser-Busch and gets free tickets.

We left early that morning, before five, and got there just as the gates opened, and had a heck of a time except that I puked on the Scorpion, or just after. We'd eaten breakfast at the IHOP outside the park and I must have eaten one chocolate-chip pancake too many, for I got sick as a dog on the first loop, but was man enough to hold my bile till I made it to the bathroom. Other than that, we had a big time. Uncle Lou even bought each of us a copy of the picture they take when you come in the park that Daddy always said was such a rip-off (fifteen bucks) though maybe he (Uncle Lou, that is) got an employee discount.

In any case, I have the picture on my nightstand to this day and have to say that yes, I look quite the happy boy, not a clue in the world that my father was lying on his deathbed four hundred miles away fighting for his last breath. Just me and that idiot Kenneth grinning like possums, Uncle Lou between us, his arms draped loosely around our necks, very Italian and all, like a good-natured mafioso with his two favorite Godsons.

By the time we started home, it was nearly dark, all the little tourist towns along US 19 decorated for Christmas, each with its own enticement: mermaids and alligator farms and manatee crossings. We even stopped at some of them as Uncle Lou is divorced and kind of lonely, and all the billboards had these well-matured women in bikinis urging you to drop by. At least, I think that's why we stopped. It was too dark to see much at any of them, and as the gray December evening gave way to a cold, clear night, I began to get a little antsy with how late it was getting, and Daddy being sick at home.

I kept thinking about Mama and how worried she'd be if I was late, how she always paced around when Daddy was late from Waycross. It started eating at me, made me curse the traffic lights and silently rejoice when it got late enough that they were turned off for the night, blinking yellow through the little towns in the Big Bend till we finally made Perry, where Uncle Lou stopped for coffee and let me call home on his credit card.

It must have been something like two o'clock in the morning by then, not the perfect time for a call home, but I didn't pause for a second because for one thing, with Daddy so sick, our household routine had become hopelessly upended, and for another: my mother never sleeps anyway. I mean, hardly ever. It's one of her strange old vampire things that we'd all grown used to, never gave a second thought to knocking on her bedroom door at midnight, or calling home at odd hours of the night.

Sure enough, she answered on the second ring, not at all upset or sleepy, just her calm, matter-of-fact self, asking me where we were; if I'd had fun.

I told her it was big fun, though I'd almost puked on the Scorpion, and she was the soul of comfort. "Did it make you feel better?"

I had to admit that it did and she said good, at least it hadn't spoiled my day, then gave the phone to Daddy, said he wanted to talk to me. I could make out a rustling of sheets and the faint sound of Mama's voice on the line, calm and rock-solid, catching Daddy up on what I'd just told her, then his own voice, weak but familiar, which was a relief, as everything else about him had become so strange lately.

I mean, if he wasn't lying in his own bedroom in his own bed when I left that morning, I wouldn't even recognize him, he was so awful looking, his face so thin you could count the bones, his hair almost completely gray, and he was only forty-three. Aunt Candace (Daddy's older sister), who is a nurse, said that's what pain will do to you, age you, but still, it was very strange, and I was almost glad I couldn't actually see him, because over the phone he sounded perfectly fine, just a little tired and hoarse.

"Hey, Clayman," he said in his thin, kindly voice, for Daddy was the kind of old-school redneck who was constantly churning out terms of affection for the people he loved. He called Simon Sim or Simbo, called our sister Missy Mimi or Red (because of her red hair), and though I was technically named after my great-grandfather Clayton, he seldom (if ever) called me by my given name, but Claybird most of the time, along with Clayman and Big Man and all sorts of variations therein.

"Hey, Daddy," I replied, then I stood there at the counter and gave him a fast travelogue of the day ...


Excerpted from The Schooling of Claybird Catts by Janis Owens
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Janis Owens was born in Marianna, Florida, in 1960, the last child and only daughter of an Assembly of God preacher who later became a salesman for the Independent Life Insurance Company. As a child, she lived in Louisiana and Mississippi, but her heart and her literary roots can be traced to west Florida, to the old mill neighborhood where her mother was raised, that the old-timers call Magnolia Hill. A graduate of the University, of Florida, Ms. Owens lives in rural north Florida with her husband and three daughters.

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