Richard Hillyer, Country Boy (1966)
With their small size and brightly colored cloth covers, Slightly Foxed Editions resemble jewels in book form, a literary treasure chest. And here is treasure indeed. Each book contains a memoir of a singular individual, revealing many facets of human nature in all its richness and complexity. Most are reprints, revived from the archives of the past for a new generation of discerning readers. While some are attached to well-known names like Rosemary Sutcliff and Graham Greene, many are from authors who have lapsed into obscurity.
In the latter category is Country Boy, a moving yet supremely unsentimental account of a boy’s life within an English farm laborer’s family just over a century ago. Deep feeling and clear-eyed observation merge to create a memorable, distinct picture of that vanished world and of the brave, struggling souls who inhabited it. The country life is neither idealized as a pastoral Arcadia, as we tend to see it today, nor demonized as a hotbed of vice and squalor, as certain novelists would have it. Both the beauties and the drawbacks of traditional rural life are described in calm, measured prose that brings a place and people vividly before us, with few judgments but many telling details.
Most memorable to me were the passages in which the author describes his longing for something different, a way into the wider world revealed to him by the scraps of literature he was able to pick up within his outwardly impoverished existence. How he treasured and sought and ultimately used these to grow into something more than the fate he was born to forms a narrative as gripping as that as any novel. For those of us who value reading above nearly all other pleasures and benefits of life, he articulates experiences and feelings that we can share no matter what the circumstances of our birth or upbringing.
The coloured words flashed out and entranced my fancy. They drew pictures in my mind. Words became magical, incantations, abracadabra which called up spirits. My dormant imagination opened like a flower in the sun. Life at home was drab and colorless, with nothing to light up the dull monotony of the unchanging days. Here in books was a limitless world that I could have for my own. It was like coming up from the bottom of the ocean and seeing the universe for the first time.
Country Boy is a real gem, one I’m sure I’ll return to often for its wisdom, insight, and compassion. I do wish that the story could have been continued; this was the author’s only memoir, and it breaks off at a very exciting point. But he didn’t set out to chronicle his whole life, only to capture a certain bygone time, and that he does to perfection.