Wrecked, Blessed Body of Shelton Lafleur

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It is New Orleans during the Depression, and Shelton Lafleur, eight years old, tumbles from the top branches of a live oak tree, which cripples him for life. His body wrecked but his spirit strong, he flees an oppressive orphanage to face the world alone. But sweet deliverance arrives in the form of a wily man named Minou, who takes Shelton into his lively family and under his worldly tutelage. Together they travel through the city, tricking tourists out of their change, while Minou teaches Shelton the means of ...
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Overview

It is New Orleans during the Depression, and Shelton Lafleur, eight years old, tumbles from the top branches of a live oak tree, which cripples him for life. His body wrecked but his spirit strong, he flees an oppressive orphanage to face the world alone. But sweet deliverance arrives in the form of a wily man named Minou, who takes Shelton into his lively family and under his worldly tutelage. Together they travel through the city, tricking tourists out of their change, while Minou teaches Shelton the means of survival in the segregated South. Many years later, Shelton - now an artist of hard-won fame - recalls Minou's other legacy: the mysterious story of Shelton's birth, when he was taken from his mother to be raised by the invalid daughter of a wealthy white businessman.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
His first novel, the praised Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery, established Brown as an extraordinarily gifted observer of Southern society, in particular of the nuances of racial relationships. His second book is a sensitive, richly atmospheric, almost gothic tale, as seen through the eyes of its eponymous black narrator. Shelton La Fleur recounts the mysteries of his sorrowful life as he perceived them as a child, raised by a crippled white woman whose father brought him as a baby to their mansion in the Garden District of New Orleans. A fall from a tree one day when he is eight ends Shelton's privileged existence. Struck mute by the shock, he is sent, limbs permanently twisted, to a black orphans' home, where he exists in limbo and misery for the next five years. After he gathers the courage to run away, he is rescued by Minou Parrain, who takes Shelton to his home in the city's black district. Minou has a mysterious link to Shelton's past, and from him the boy eventually learns not only the secret of his identity and the sources of artistic creativity but also about the bonds of love and the possibility of grace. Indeed, the narrative is constructed as a fable of a hero who falls from grace and struggles back toward the light. Shelton becomes a painter, able to symbolize his experiences in his work and to reflect what he learns about the roles forced on the black community by poverty and prejudice, and anger and shame. Brown's touch here is not as sure as it was in his debut: the pace is initially slow; Shelton's voice is not always convincing; the prose is sometimes self-indulgent; and the final revelation of the circumstances of Shelton's "adoption'' tests credulity. Once the momentum builds, however, Brown adroitly foils readers' expectations three times in quick succession. There is enough imaginative power in this tale to redeem its flaws. Author tour. (Apr.)
Library Journal
Brown follows his exceptional first novel, Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery (LJ 12/93), with a step or so forward and a step or so back. Set like its predecessor in New Orleans, the novel is done largely in retrospect by aged black artist Shelton, the victim at age eight of a crippling fall from a tree, which leads to his separation from the sickly white "mother" for whom he had been purchased. Once he is saved from an orphanage by Minou Perrain, an artist who feigns blindness, the remainder of the novel involves various identity quests, reversals, and a few ending twists. The style is sometimes beautiful, sometimes grandiose, and the imagery and symmetry are often heavy-handed-all of which can waylay the story before the concluding payoff(s). Too Faulknerian, some will say. Still, this is recommended for most larger collections for the good writing, the imaginative force, and the author's promising future.-Robert E. Brown, Onondaga Cty. P.L., Syracuse, N.Y.
School Library Journal
YANow a broken old man, Shelton LaFleur slowly recalls the events that shaped his life as a young boy growing up during the Depression in New Orleans. The first of many life-altering events he remembers is the fall from a tree at age eight that left his body misshapen. Since he was black and assumed poor, little was done to correct the damage. He flashes back to what he knows of his birth and being sold to a childless, wealthy white family. The story takes up again after the fall, when no one knew who he was, and would not believe that his mother was white. An orphanage for black children became home. Never accepted by the other children because of his deformities, Shelton ran away. Minou, the man Shelton would later learn was his real father, gave him a home. Minou, a black street artist, pretended to be blind when working the tourist-laden streets. He told stories as he painted, and learned quickly what would generate more money in the tin cup. And this was one of the lessons learned by Shelton as he took up this occupation when Minou disappeared. After hearing his story, readers will be left wondering how much storytelling Shelton learned from Minouor if it all really happened. Brown presents an excellent view of life during the 1930s in the South and the different realities that existed depending on whether one was white or black, rich or poor. The novel explores these realities from the perspective of a man who lived in both worlds and the choices made based on these perceptions. Because of the fanciful storytelling, issues such as sitting in the back of the bus don't hit readers in the face, but they are there.Beth Devers, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Kirkus Reviews
Brown's second novel returns to the hothouse milieu of his first (Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery, 1994): a New Orleans full of familial tragedy and racial strife. And like the first, this somber tale rests on a burdensome secret, except that here things seem even more manufactured and implausible.

In a voice that shifts from first to third person, Shelton Gerard Lafleur, an accomplished folk artist in his 70s, tells the oddly redemptive story of his life, one marked by a crippling fall from a tree at age eight. Before then, Shelton understood his mother to be the sweet, sickly white woman who spent most of her days in bed. What we come to learn is that the young black boy was purchased by a wealthy white man, Edward Soniat, to keep his dying daughter company. When Shelton falls from the tree, he's spirited to an orphanage, while the woman he believes to be his mother is told he's dead. Taking a vow of silence in the Depression-era institution, Shelton endures the abuse of the other boys, secure in his belief that he'll one day be returned to his family. But Miss Genevieve, the Soniats' nursemaid, has other plans. At 13, Shelton finds a patron of sorts in Minou Parrian, Miss Genevieve's son-in- law, a painter who pretends to be blind while sketching tourists in the French Quarter. Minou teaches Shelton his craft, both the art of drawing and the trickery of exploiting handicaps. The hyped-up drama of the novel comes from a sudden reversal, when Minou and Shelton change their roles as protector and protected. While Shelton finds strength and forgiveness with the revelation of his true parentage, Minou sets off on a mission of murderous revenge.

The self-conscious play of imagery (light/dark, blindness/sight) is just one obvious aspect of Brown's overwrought and formulaic prose; his relentless sense of woe and despair is another. Retro southern fiction: Faulkner by way of the creative writing department.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780380729654
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/1/1997
  • Series: Paperback Series
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.29 (w) x 7.99 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Read an Excerpt

MOTHER AND CHILD

WATCH NOW. It's my hands that speak, not my voice. Just picture a child who, lacking words for his thoughts, flits and flutters his moth-soft fingers before your eyes and asks you to see. This is what happened to me, the child's hands say. I'll show you.

Of course I'm not a child but an old man, and a frightful-looking one at that, more skeleton than skin, face like a weatherworn stone, my body casting the shadow of some half-starved animal on the verge of collapse. You'd guess, just looking at me, I was eighty-five or ninety. You'd guess I was about to slip, in a single shallow breath, straight from this world to the next. Maybe you'd even swear you'd seen the likes of me on the porch outside some falling-down old folks' home, my body bound to a creaking cane rocker, spit dinging to the corners of my mouth.

No, that's not me, though it might as well be. The fact is, I'm only seventy. I just look older. I feel older.

Even so, inside this body there's a child's story stirring, wanting to break free. Watch, my hands say, and I'll show you the story of that child, a child made strange and silent by circumstance, a beautiful dark star of a child who sixty-two years ago dropped to the ground as though he'd fallen from the sky.

In truth, the fall was from the great swaying branches and thick rustling leaves of a single tar-patched and withered Audubon Park oak. As he fell, the child's body crashed from branch to branch, and for those quick few moments he didn't know up from down and could hardly tell which limbs were his own and which the tree's, feeling only the sharp kick and swish and wallop of tumbling, a tumbling that would leave his body bruised andbroken and wrecked.

Sixty-two years later and the ruin of that child's body, now an old man's, remains. With the passing of one slow year to another, one creeping day to the next, that body grows more burdensome and debilitating and frail, as though the fall from the oak occurred not just once but again and again, each fall worse than the one before it-swifter, more painful, more difficult to endure.

Even my dreams, though they've got a lifetime from which to take their stories, have now become dreams of falling. Mornings I wake, as often as not, with the sensation that I've just landed there in that bed after plummeting through the air, my body pressed so deep into the mattress that it seems buried in the earth. I feel chilled and nearly take myself for dead. I run my hands across my arms for warmth and wonder how it is I've sprouted these two frail twigs, so coarse and insubstantial. They hang down from my shoulders as if some farmer has stuck them there to scare the dimwitted crows from his corn.

How, I ask myself, do this sunken chest and bent back manage to contain a beating heart, the same one that pumped inside a young man, a child, an infant? Such a change seems so improbable, so devastating. Sometimes it feels as though my body has set about becoming the tree that, sixty-two years ago, it found itself falling from. Skin of bark and hair of moss-I practically scare myself.

But my hands. Watch as I raise them up, as I place them in view of my swimming and searching eyes. See the fingers swollen out to their knotty, arthritic joints. See how the nails have gone cloudy and cracked. See how the crescent-shaped blisters bubble out at the base of each thumb and jagged creases cut through the palms as though my fingers have just peeled open, after years and years, from the clenched fists they first formed.

You'd never guess that these hands have provided, through my long life, a measure of strength that my body has otherwise lacked. They've put food on my table, earned me a livelihood as real and true as any man has a right to expect. They've offered themselves in forgiveness and friendship and longing.

They've done more, though. They have. Keep looking and you'll see how they've waved grace over from its hiding place, waved and waved until something has finally swooped down as if from heaven or shot up from the ground like a pale new shoot. You'll see how each time I waved, there grace was, found where and when it was least expected.

Look: There's Minou Parrain, come to save the child.

Look: There's Edward Soniat, there's his frail daughter Margaret.

There's Genevieve Simmons, small and scared and terrifying.

There's proud Isabel and shy Adrienne.

There's Olivia and Elise, just children.

They've all got a gift for the child, don't they? They've all got a place in shaping the child's life, waving and waving to grace for the child's sake, for their own.

Who's going to save the child's life? Who's going to save his own? Who'll take the broken wings the child's limbs have be come and show him the when and where and what-for of setting them in motion?

Well, it's been grace, nothing more or less, that has made its great good appearance before my eyes, taking on the most surprising of shapes. And I've made of it only a single request-that I be allowed, when my voice can't or won't, to speak. Time and again, grace has answered. Time and again, it's said yes.

Go on, it says now. Tell your story while there's time.

I will, I answer. I will.

And so my hands start their trembling, start their shaking, and speak.

Copyright ) 1996 John Gregory Brown

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