REVIEW: Kinfolk by Sean Dietrich
Sometimes it’s the most unlikely meetings that give us life’s greatest gifts.
1970s, Southern Alabama. Sixty-two-year-old Jeremiah Lewis Taylor, or “Nub,” has spent his whole life listening to those he’s loved telling him he’s no good—first his ex-wife, now his always-disapproving daughter. Sure, his escapades have made him, along with his cousin and perennial sidekick, Benny, just a smidge too familiar with small town law enforcement, but he’s never harmed anyone—except perhaps himself.
Nub never meant to change his ways, but when he and fifteen-year-old Waffle House waitress Minnie form an unlikely friendship, he realizes for the first time that there may be some good in him after all. Six-foot-five Minnie has been dealt a full deck of bad luck—her father is a convicted murderer serving a life sentence, her mother is dead and buried, and she has a Grand Ole Opry–worthy singing voice with no place to perform. Oh, and there’s the small fact that she’s unexpectedly pregnant, courtesy of a no-good high-school boy.
Gradually, Nub realizes the gift he’s been given: a second chance to make a difference.
Beloved Southern writer Sean Dietrich, also known as Sean of the South, once again brings people and places to life in this lyrical song-turned-story about found family, second chances, country music, and the poignant power of love and forgiveness.
CW/TW – suicide, alcoholism, cancer, teen pregnancy, bullying
In Alabama, “Drive safe” is code for “I love you.” There are different versions of this phrase, of course. But the words all mean the same thing. They all carry the same spirit. In central Alabama, one variation of this phrase is, “Be careful, the cops are out tonight.” In northern regions of the state, people say, “Y’all be safe going home.” Others might say, “Watch out for deer.”
Either way, the specific words are inconsequential; they all convey the same meaning: You matter to me. You’re important to me. Keep your high beams on. Keep both hands on the wheel. Deer are homicidal. Eavesdrop at any Alabamian get-together, from women’s Bible studies to Veterans of Foreign Wars halls, from Boy Scout rallies to bunco games, and at the end of the night, you won’t hear I-love-yous uttered. Not even among families. You will, however, hear the “drive safe” invocation used about fifty or sixty times.
Dear Mr. Dietrich,
This book is a country and western song in the making. Most of the plot can probably already be found in various country and western songs. Well maybe not the C-4 but most of the rest. Love, drinking, regret, heartache, exes, anger, love, regret, drinking, singing, family, lost love, drinking, second chances, regret, drinking, family, prison, parole, drinking, love, and second chances. Yep, that about covers it. When I read the blurb I crossed my fingers and asked to read it, hoping it would be similar – in a 1970s way – to “The Big Finish” which also centers around an older man, his friend, and a young woman needing a helping hand. To my delight, it is.
If you are a Southerner, you will probably know, be related to or have someone like one of these people in your life. Said person has probably Been Discussed at family gatherings with a smile, a sigh, and/or some heavy eye rolling. “Lord, what is soandso up to now??” You might even be one of these characters. If you are not a Southerner, you will probably be horrified at these people. You might sneer, curl a lip in disgust, sniff disparagingly, and thank whatever power you believe in that you are not from here or related to anyone like them thankyouverymuch.
I am a Southerner – born and bred – and while this is not quite a homecoming for me, I’ve lived in and been around small Southern towns, had extended family around me, been to services in small, rural churches, and my daddy was an alcoholic. He wasn’t as publicly bad as Nub but dad and I, in many ways, were like Nub and his daughter Emily. There were wounds, there were scars, there were regrets.
Though the book is laced with wry, deadpan humor – and I laughed Out Loud a whole bunch of times – there are some painful things as well. The book starts off with a load of them including a two suicides and a drunken rampage by Nub as he attempts to escape the long arm of the law. It doesn’t go well for him but frankly, he lives in a small town, works for the county government, and everyone knows where he lives so it wasn’t like he was going to evade anything. Sigh … sometimes the liquor drives Nub to do things he shouldn’t.
Nub knows he’s been a disappointment to his friends and family. But, in his defense, he has an Incident from his youth which was followed by a year in a youth asylum (because his mama couldn’t cope with the first Incident) that would leave lifelong wounds on most people much less an eleven year old boy. Nub knows he shouldn’t have done a lot that he’s done – heck the whole town knows it – but alcohol is a powerful mistress and Nub doesn’t seem to have an off-switch once he starts.
Minnie and Nub first meet in the hospital. It’s a small town with a small hospital so I didn’t bat an eye that an older man and teen girl would be recovering in the same room. Later when Nub sees Minnie being bullied by a teen snot – heck the whole town knows Philip is a little pissant – and his minions it lights a fire in Nub. He might have messed up being there for his own daughter but he’s going to help Minnie even if that requires filling out “thirty miles of documents” and attending a parenting class so he can foster this young teen who has no one. Everyone – including his daughter (who is a little jealous) and his ex – tells him he’s insane but Nub is a man on a mission.
Minnie is a sweet teen who has always been teased because of her height and who believed a pissant when he said he would love her if she just agreed to sex. Now she’s pregnant, an orphan and due to Nub’s sense of mission, finally in a home where she can relax, take hot showers, and wear clothes that fit and aren’t falling apart. She can’t believe her luck. Nub’s cat Wyatt likes her, too.
What no one knows is that Minnie’s father isn’t dead and is out on parole. Right, the man who worked for organized crime, ripped them off, and then accidentally killed a man leading to fifteen years in the slammer where his height and size made him a target. The men dressed all in black and driving a white caddy who follow Sugar make no attempt to evade Shug’s notice. That’s part of the intimidation. They also begin harassing Minnie – and by extension Nub – to mess with Shug and get their money back. But no one is messing with his daughter and if he has to camp out in the woods near Nub’s house and keep watch – and also get his hands on some C-4, as Shug was a demolition man in the Army – he will.
The myth of absent fathers is that they are careless and selfish. But sometimes the opposite is also true. Sometimes absent fathers care too much. Sometimes they’re drunks. And sometimes drunks know they’re drunks. Sometimes, contrary to what you’ve been told, drunks don’t want to screw up your life. So they stay away.
Emily Ives initially thinks her father is nuts to take on a foster teen. Emily is also a bit pissed that, through Minnie, Nub appears to want to make up for all he missed in Emily’s life. Emily is also hiding a secret that she discovered after dealing with yet another Thanksgiving from hell. Yet as she watches her father actually seem to reform himself – except for the smoking as you can only give up so much at a time as AA knows – Emily does what Southern women do, she brings food and tries to help including a wild ride to the hospital with a teen in labor in the backseat of her car.
Somehow all of the plot threads come together in the end. It’s wild but what else should I have expected from this book? As I mentioned earlier, I laughed my ass off at times and blinked back a tear at others. Some things cut close while many, many others brought me good memories as I know the South and I lived through 1972. Boomers and Gen Xers will know a lot of these things first hand. The book has sass, heart, and people triumphing over the odds against them. It will not be for everyone but I inhaled the 400 pages in two days and loved it. It will break your heart and then put it back together. A-
Because Minnie had come to believe that life was not about finding miracles, or happiness, or success, or purpose, or about avoiding disappointment. It was about finding people. People are what make life worth it. People are the buried treasure. People who understand you. People who will bleed with you. People who make your life richer. Your people. Your kinfolk.