Memoir blends coming-of-age tale with agrarian treatise, meditation on illness



SCHOOLED: Life Lessons of a College Professor
By Casey Clabough
UK: Belvedere, 2013

One of the themes New Southerner champions is “the interconnectedness of all living organisms,” and, despite the book’s misleading title, this is found in abundance in Casey Clabough’s memoir, SCHOOLED. To be sure, Clabough, a professor as well as a writer, holds forth from time to time on various academic topics, but his central message posits that at the end of the day getting schooled has “almost nothing to do with book-learning and everything to do with living.” Having grown up on a farm and managed his own for over a decade, he intimately knows and shares the cycles of life and death for a great host of creatures.

Like his first creative nonfiction book, The Warrior’s Path, SCHOOLED does its own thing within the memoir genre. It is, all-at-once, an Appalachian coming-of-age tale, an academic book, a contemporary agrarian treatise, and a meditation on coping with personal illness. Published in England and likened in style by its editor to the writing of Elizabeth Bowen, the book is paradoxically gritty in content: bones are broken, animals die, people and places suffer. Not surprisingly, the book’s favorable blurbs come from Harry Crews and Barry Hannah, which also suggests Clabough must have worked on the manuscript for a long time (both writers are deceased). In fact, many of the chapters were published as stand-alone essays, at least two of which won awards.

“The Skeleton Woman,” an account of Clabough’s boyhood relationship with his “ahead-of-her-time” scientist mother, was a runner-up for a host of national and international prose awards, before finding a home in Creative Nonfiction. Though it is only the book’s second chapter, it may serve as its centerpiece since the mother-figure is probably the most dominant force in the memoir. “Mommy issues” in memoirs—and life—might be cliché, but the courage and strength demonstrated by Clabough’s mother (she left the 1970s male-dominated world of research scientists to raise her child) makes her sympathetic though far from pitiable. Even as an adolescent Clabough, equally gifted and bull-headed, tests and resists her.

Readers who look to memoirs for conventional inspiration or self-help will not find it in SCHOOLED. Instead we get a dark journey through the harsh realities of life that, while hopeless at times, at least dares the reader to hope too much. Of the beloved rescue stallion Clabough grew up with and considered a brother, he has this to write:

When he was dead a tractor with a backhoe dug his grave and a great rusty chain was wrapped about him so as to drag his great form to it. He lies there now in the fashion of a hundred other animals of that farm, having returned to the earth. I think of them sometimes, the various spots where they have been buried, spanning all the way back to my childhood, and how some of those places are covered now in saplings and thickets or mown over, or, in a few cases, marked each spring by the emergence of daffodils or tulips. Most farms are like that: landscapes of the dead, from which new things are always growing.

SCHOOLED is the kind of book that grows on you, even as it refuses to avoid the hardest questions.

Nick Bourman is a part-time graduate student at Lynchburg College. He hails from Grundy, Virginia, and enjoys amateur dirt-track racing.

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