Reviewed by Donna Meredith
Hardscrabble Road, by George Weinstein, is a hard novel to read—not because it is poorly written, but because the MacLeod family at the heart of the story is so dysfunctional that at times it makes you want to cry. The tale is set in South Georgia during the Depression.
Yet it is not the poverty that darkens this story so much as the appalling behavior of the adults. The parents are violent and immoral to the point that when the father attempts to kill the mother, the reader wants to take the gun and shoot both of them to free the children from their poisonous influence.
As a novel exploring the bleak side of families in the American South, Hardscrabble Road earns a place on the bookshelf beside Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, Connie May Fowler’s Before Women Had Wings, and Jeannette Wall’s memoir The Glass Castle.
Weinstein’s prose is fluid and straightforward, at times sparkling with the poetry of truth revealed. Universal themes of sin, forgiveness, and perseverance make the story relevant.
Bud MacLeod, the boy who narrates the story, is quite likeable. His face bears a prominent purple stain, which makes him a target, sometimes for bullying, sometimes for pity. Fortunately, one special teacher and a couple of girls can see beyond the birthmark to the sweet and honest character beneath.
Bud’s older brothers are also sympathetic characters when they stand up for Bud against schoolmates—even though the middle boy, Chet, is quick to beat Bud up himself. It’s no surprise that at least one of the kids would continue the pattern of beatings the parents regularly deliver.
Once, on a rare evening, Bud’s family behaves the way he imagines other families behave—getting along, even whistling and singing a little. Bud sits alone in the dark watching them, afraid to join in and break the spell. This is one of many occasions when Bud is a “watcher,” rather than a participant in life.
Rienzi, a girl who visits the area frequently, stands out because she is biracial. Her Asian features make her a target for ridicule, particularly as the United State gears up for World War II. She is also exceptional as a practitioner of martial arts, a skill useful when she is bullied.
This fast-paced novel delivers interesting twists as the multiple threads and storylines weave a final pattern that is both surprising and inevitable.
Despite the abuse Bud endures, the reader becomes certain he will find his way to a better life than his parents had. The novel offers the hope that a young person can find sufficient nourishment of spirit even in the direst of circumstances to ultimately thrive as an adult.
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Weinstein is the managing director of the Academy for Academic Leadership, a consulting and educational services company. His work has been published in the Atlanta press and in regional and national anthologies.
Hardscrabble Road is Weinstein’s first novel for adults. His first novel, Jake and the Tiger Flight, was written for children, with a goal of motivating them to take command of their own lives. He is the former president of the Atlanta Writers Club. Read more about him at www.georgeweinstein.com. The website includes additional tales about this novel’s narrator, Bud MacLeod.