Reviewed by John S. Maguire
Chris Fabry’s The Promise of Jesse Woods is a novel that deals with race, social inequality and the age-old story of star-crossed lovers. It is a complex read, weaving in and out of two time periods, but somehow Fabry makes it all work, twisting the usual response to these subjects and looking at them in a different way.
We first meet the narrator of the novel, Matt Plumley, living in Chicago in 1984. He has just watched the Cubs lose in the first round of the baseball playoffs. As the game ends he gets a call from the past, one of his old friends, Dickie Darrel Lee Hancock, from Dogwood, West Virginia, where Matt grew up. He has something important to tell his old friend and at the sound of Dickie’s voice the memories of Dogwood begin to fill his brain.
Plumley’s memories take him back to being a plump, book-wormish preacher’s kid, torn from his home in Pittsburgh when his father is appointed the pastor of his hometown church in Dogwood, West Virginia. Dogwood is a typical small town in West Virginia, subsisting on the dying industry of coal and the mines from which it is taken. Matt is also torn from his first love, The Pittsburgh Pirates. He knows all the players and lives and dies with the results of their games. He soon learns that there is little room for a plump, book-wormish Pirates fan in Dogwood.
Matt feels he has been exiled until, on a bike ride through the community, he meets Jesse Woods and her friend Dickie, who is half African American. Their meeting is quite by accident as Matt sees a horse tangled in barbed wire and runs for helping. Jesse is the first person he finds and Dickie follows soon behind her. They cut the horse loose but are confronted by the ill-tempered owner of the property and horse. Knowing the man, Old Man Blackwood, Dickie and Jesse run away, but Matt is stuck and gets an ear full.
The next day Matt seeks out his two new acquaintances and the three become fast friends. Matt was confused when he came home that day and told his family about his new friends, and the prejudices of Dogwood come rising to the top. His grandmother tells him to watch out for those two. Jesse is from the bad part of town and Dickie, well, Dickie has his own issues. Matt is confused by all of the preconceived judgment in this Christian town. In fact, isn’t his father not the pastor?
Prejudices be damned, as far as Matt’s concerned, and he continues to see Jesse and Dickie. So much so that soon he develops a crush on the beautiful Jesse that grows into full blown love. The two share many secrets and at some point become separated. Their secrets are still unknown. One in particular still haunts them both 12 years later in 1984. Dickie’s call not only brings back memories but also thoughts of Jesse and that secret as well.
Dickie is calling to tell Matt that Jesse Woods is getting married that weekend. Plumley drives all night to get to Dogwood from Chicago for one last chance to proclaim his love for Jesse and hopefully undo what has been done by the secrets of their past.
Moving from era to era, Fabry uses amazing similes and metaphors to keep the reader grounded in each of the eras. In 1972 when Matt and his family arrive in Dogwood, Matt describes his grandmother’s house as a place where “bacon fat … hung in the air as wet quilts hang on a clothesline.” Swinging back into 1984 after Matt has driven all night to get to Dogwood, Matt meets a man as weathered as “his coveralls and as faded as the Cincinnati Reds hat.” These two examples emphasize that in the time he had been gone from Dogwood, it hadn’t changed much.
So that the story flows, even through the back and forth, Fabry shows that racial and socio-economic prejudices exist even in so called Christians, due to ingrained judgments and time-honored ways. They were there in 1972 and are still around when Matt arrives back in Dogwood in 1984.However, Matt’s love of baseball is just as constant. These factors keep the reader squarely in the story through all of the flashbacks and foreshadowing, an accomplishment that is difficult for most but seemingly effortless for Fabry.
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