Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Boy Named Sue

There are several things to take away from a reading of The Typist by Michael Knight.

One is another reminder, if one is needed, that trying to predict the defining influences in a child's life is a risky business. When our narrator Francis Vancleave "Van" was a child growing up in Alabama in the early years of World War II, his mother, who had been a secretary before she married, would type papers for students at the nearby college to earn extra money. With the typewriter set up on the kitchen table after dinner, it was a natural that she would teach her son to type. No Tiger Mother drama here: he was a willing student. What neither of them anticipated was that when Van enlisted in the military, his typing was considered a "special talent" and he was assigned to the military secretarial pool of General Douglas MacArthur, thereby probably saving his life at the very least. And that assignment sets up the rest of the story in Japan.

Another take-away is admiration for the imagination of a writer. Part of the back story to this novel, as described by Knight in the book's Acknowledgments, is that Knight attended a writer's conference in Florida in 2007 where he met a man who was in fact a typist in MacArthur's command, serving as an enlisted man in Tokyo during the American occupation of Japan after the war. Knight is able to take the life of an ordinary enlisted typist and use it to give us an expanded view into this moment of history - and a very interesting view it is. I am inspired to want to read more about MacArthur himself...and isn't that one mark of a successful story?

And finally, MacArthur named his only child, a son, Arthur. Yes, it was also the name of the boy's grandfather but why perpetuate it? I'm sure it was character building (not unlike "A Boy Named Sue").

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