Schooling of Claybird Cattsby Janis Owens
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 whose warmth and caring prove the only true constants in Clay's disrupted life. Devastated
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 whose warmth and caring prove the only true constants in Clay's disrupted life. 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 his uncle Gabe comes back.
A stranger to Claybird, Uncle Gabe is a brilliant academic who went north twenty years ago and then all but disappeared. 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 savior. Soon he seems to fit right into the place left vacant by the death of Claybird's father. Gabe and Claybird become co-conspirators 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.
The Schooling of Claybird Catts offers a rare wisdom about life, about the frail yet unbreakable bonds that form among family, and about the beauty and sorrow of everyday lives. A beguiling story told in the rich, Southern storytelling tradition, in an irresistible voice that sweeps the reader up from the first page and doesn't let go, this is the kind of novel to read again and again and to treasure forever.
- HarperCollins Publishers
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The Schooling of Claybird Catts
By Janis Owens
Chapter OneTo 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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janis owens is one of the great southern writers. a treasure. we all owe it to ourselves to read her books. they're life-affirming and lovely.
Janis Owens has created a beautifully-written, profound novel of one boy's coming-of-age journey in a frequently confusing world. 11-year-old narrator Clayton "Claybird" Catts, shares his own touching story with complete honesty and humor. Set in rural northern Florida, this compelling story begins as Claybird's beloved father, Michael, is dying from cancer. Following his death, Michael's mysterious brother, Gabe, returns home from his exile and eventually marries Claybird's mother. Uncle Gabe advocates for and helps the dyslexic Claybird excel in school, which increases his self-esteem tremendously. Claybird feels betrayed when a family secret is revealed, therefore he moves out of his home. Living with other family members teaches him many of life's lessons and he learns the true meaning of family. Ms. Owens is a brilliant storyteller, who utterly captivated me from the very first page. Her magnificent writing brings the bittersweet story to life, and all the charm and culture of the South is superbly depicted. The characters are extraordinarily vivid and intriguing. She meticulously captures the angst of adolescence and Claybird's speech reflects that of a teenage boy. I absolutely loved this engrossing story and found I could truly identify with these characters in many ways. Abounding with homespun wisdom about family and life, I highly recommend this wonderful novel! "My Brother Michael" and "Myra Sims" are the companion books in the Catts family series.
Janis Owens goes to the heart of teenage vulnerabilities and self doubts in telling the Catts-Sims story from a young boy¿s point of view. That she does this is admirable, that she does it so well is truly miraculous. Claybird¿s painful, self-imposed estrangement from his family eventually heals, through their loving patience and his bittersweet maturation. More than just a coming of age tale, the gentle, honest portrayal of the heartaches and wonders of a dyslexic child provide insight and encouragement of this little understood reading difficulty. Ms. Owens¿ writing style is enchanted and her characters are so real the reader will know them personally, but perhaps that insight and encouragement is the ultimate compliment of this story.
There¿s something about the deep South that calls out for unraveling. What is the hidden mystery? Some people are satisfied to see what they think they see. But not novelist Janis Owens. She brings all the ghosts out from the shadows. She wants the real story. It¿s the real story that we all want because it is only the real that changes our lives and makes us human. And in this wonderfully crafted, sad, funny and romantic book is that look beneath what we think we know that rewards us with a flash of understanding. It¿s all here: wealth, sibling rivalry, incest, family betrayals and falling in love forever, twice. Like the kiss. His mother was supposed to kiss his uncle Gabe for show, for friendly, for ceremonious. But even her eleven-year-old son saw a different and unexpected connection. ¿I actually glanced around the room, wanted to ask someone: What was that? Did you see that?¿ I stayed up until 3AM to finish it.