When Jessica Sawyer Rigby first approached me to write the review, I was excited because I met Inman at the Alabama Writer’s Symposium a few months ago and attended a wonderful discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird featuring Inman, Mark Childress and Jeanie Thompson.
After reading the book, I’ve become a fan of Inman and can’t wait to read his other novels, Captain Saturday, Dairy Queen Days, Old Dogs and Children, Coming Home, and his latest, The Governor’s Lady. Inman also has a children’s book, The Christmas Bus.
So here’s my review of Home Fires Burning. If any of you are interested in participating in the on-line chat with Inman, please join us Friday, June 27 at 10:00 am. Our last chat was on John Green’s, The Fault in Our Stars, which you can read here. You can sign up for the club, access all book reviews and the chat here.
Characters, setting, storyline make Inman’s ‘Home Fires Burning’ a timeless treat to read
Sometimes you read a novel that grabs you and leaves you thinking of its characters long after you’ve finished reading — a work that you rush to finish while hating to see it end. “Home Fires Burning” is that kind of book.
Written by Elba native Robert Inman, the book encompasses the lives of three generations of an established family in a small Southern town during the last days of World War II. Inman’s depiction of the social hierarchy of the small town is written with truth and humor. Jake Tibbetts, the editor of the town newspaper started by his grandfather, Captain Finley Tibbetts, after the Civil War, is the central character. And a character he is. Jake is opinionated, bull-headed and eccentric. He is coming to terms with aging; he is the self-imposed voice of the community through his newspaper, The Free Press; he is married to Pastine, a woman who can hold her own against his orneriness; he is taking care of his 12-year-old grandson, Lonnie, while his son, Henry, is in Europe fighting; and he is facing the changes brought on by wartime. For Jake, a staunch believer in taking responsibility for oneself, the war has brought about circumstances that challenge his core belief in his ability to “take his life in his own hands and shaking it for all it’s worth.”
Jake discovers there are trials in life that may make his motto impossible to follow. What does a man like Jake do when life becomes a thing he can’t control? For Jake, there is no easy answer. He finds himself lost in the chaos of happenings beyond his control, yet he struggles to live by his motto no matter the collateral damage. It is his finding his way that is so compelling about the book. Jake butts heads at every turn. What he views as faults in others, leads to both funny and tragic situations.
The novel immediately reminded me of my grandfather, who much like Jake, held on to his view of the world, even as that world around him changed. This is what makes the novel both intriguing and timeless. We all struggle with a changing world and how our beliefs and convictions are sometimes rocked by the changes over which we have no control. Not only does Jake have to deal with immediate situations (his son’s pregnant wife showing up on Christmas Day), he has to deal with a legacy of mental and physical illness, what he calls the Tibbetts’ curse.
Inman has written a book that deals with the human struggle to understand oneself and others in the face of change and the ghosts of the past and given us a look into these common struggles. As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Jake must deal with his family’s past and its effects on him, his son, Henry, and his grandson, Lonnie. The past is ever present in his life as it is with us all. In his grandfather’s Civil War sword which hangs over the mantel, a testament to heroism and family legacy. In the tragedy of his son, an alcoholic who leaves the scene of the accident that kills his wife, Lonnie’s mother and daughter of his best friend, Rosh. In his father’s depression which he fears may have been reborn in Lonnie. Yet, Jake tries to hold his belief in his ability to take responsibility for his own life even as that life is growing out of control.
One of the best aspects of Inman’s work is his ability to bring humor into Jake’s struggle. There are wonderfully funny scenes that break the tension. Pastine brandishes Captain Finley Tibbetts’ sword when Jake refuses to speak to Henry’s new wife and baby; a love-sick pilot lands on the road in front of his girl’s house, leading the town fathers to believe they are being attacked by the Germans; Henry, home from the war, drinks the local bootlegger’s Lightnin’ Jim’s Best and steals the town’s fire truck; and Jake writes some very witty and biting columns in The Free Press concerning some of the town’s prominent citizens. These are all laugh-out-loud moments.
And there are some really insightful quotes:
“Man’s avarice is exceeded only by his curiosity. And man is never more curious than he is about the avarice of others.”
“There’s only two things standing between man and perfection, gents, and that’s meanness and ignorance.”
“He grieved a bit for himself, for all men who must grow old and face the certainty of their own mortality, knowing for all their age and wisdom, they go naked and blind into the dark night.”
“Most of the failures of this world are failures of imagination.”
“Home Fires Burning” has no lack of imagination. From beginning to end, the reader is entranced by the characters, the setting and the story of the Tibbetts family.
To quote Jake, “A man has to take his life into his own hands and shake it for all it’s worth.” We are fortunate that Inman took this story and shook it for all it’s worth. With the shaking, a brilliant novel was born with a cast of characters as memorable as a plane landing in front of your house. It’s a book you won’t forget.
AL.com’s Red Clay Readers, in partnership with the Alabama Center for Literary Arts, is a book club designed to take a fresh look at Alabama-affiliated literature with the help of our readers.