The Boone Series Continues (Part One)

I’m sharing this excerpt from Pushing Back, the first book in the Boone Series, to mark the publication of the fifth book. Choosing Family is scheduled for release in May of this year. This selection is from early in Pushing Back, and Boone is looking for his father, who stormed out of the house earlier. He finds him in the front yard of the house, scanning the road.


He’s sitting on the tailgate, the shotgun across his lap, the box of shells right beside him. The sun is low now, right in his face when he looks down the road, and his eyes are almost shut against it. I can hear him talking to himself when I get to the front bumper.

“Bastards better not follow me up here. This is my home, goddammit. They better not come up here.”

He keeps saying this over and over, his eyes never leaving the road.

It had been three or four hours since he had left the house. None of us knew where he had gone, but we never did, so that was nothing new. I think about asking, but as soon as I think it I know better. The mood he’s in, I’m on thin ice just going out there. I hate this, I think. I take another step towards him. 

He tenses and I think he’s going to swing the shotgun around in my direction, but all he turns is his head. He turns far enough to see that it’s me and then turns back.

“Come on out here, Boone. Sit down over on this side and watch the road up toward the Thompson’s.”

I asked Momma one time where I got that name; I was afraid it was after Daniel Boone and I thought that was really stupid. The truth was worse. 

“Your daddy and me used to drink a lot of Boone’s Farm wine. It was all we could afford, and your daddy hadn’t learned how to make his own yet.” She had kind of smiled to herself. “Well, anyway, you asked.”

So I let all the other kids at school think that Daniel Boone was this big hero to my parents and they laughed and made fun but it could’ve been a lot worse.

I never told anybody the real story, and they didn’t give me a middle name, so I couldn’t go that way to get out of it. So I was Boone. I had already looked up about changing my name, I mean, who wants to be named after some kind of cheap wine? But I knew that wasn’t going to happen until I hit eighteen and moved out on my own.

One time I made the mistake of telling Momma what a stupid name I thought it was and didn’t know Daddy was just coming into the room. That wasn’t the worst beating I ever got, but it was pretty bad. 

None of us were safe from his black moods. Well, Hannah. Far as I know, he never laid a hand on her. Momma, me, Frankie, that was different. Sometimes it’d be a week or two between beatings, but, like I said, nobody got away clean. Part of it was liquor, I know that. Part of it was they treated him the same way they treated all of us. If you lived up where we did, in any of those counties just outside Knoxville, you were trash and people felt like it was all right to shit on you any time they wanted to. Daddy had one job after another, he’d take it as long as he could, and then some boss would say something that he just couldn’t walk away from. He had pride, I’ll give him that. Plus he’d stand up to anybody. It was that time leading up to his standing up for himself that was hell for us at home. He would bottle it up all day long at work, maybe stop for a few on the way home, and then one of us would say something or not say something or do something or not do it, and he’d blow. Sometimes we could tell by the way he took that last curve before he whipped into the driveway and up into the yard. Sometimes none of us saw it coming. A couple of times I saw Momma’s hand tighten around the handle of the cast iron skillet she had on the stove, but she never swung it at him. I think if she had there’d be a grave for one of them out there behind the house, county or no county. I used to wonder sometimes which one of them would win if it really got down to it. She’d always back down, though. Always. Never pushed back.

And Frankie, well, I still can’t talk about Frankie.

“What is it I’m watching for?” I break the silence. He’s stopped that talking to himself he was doing when I came up. He doesn’t turn, doesn’t take his eyes off the road.

“Just tell me if you see anybody. Specially anybody you don’t know.”

“Even Ginny Thompson?”

The butt of the shotgun catches me in the stomach before I have a chance to tighten up. All the air whooshes out of me and I bend double, trying to keep from falling off the tailgate into the dust.

“Don’t you understand English, boy?”

“Yes sir,” I manage, but it comes out more of a croak than anything else.

He’s already looking back down the road. “Get your head up, then. We’ll be losing light soon.”

I slowly get my wind back and we sit, not saying anything, until we can’t see the mailbox down at the road and the first couple of stars are starting to show themselves in a sky that still has a little color. 

“I’m hungry,” he says to himself, like he doesn’t remember I’m out there with him. “Reckon I’ll go on inside.”

I know better than to move just yet.

“You want me to stay out here and keep watch?”

I don’t know whether that’s the right thing to say or not. It’s impossible to know one way or the other. I know that when I mentioned Ginny Thompson, the twelve year old that lives up the road, I got slammed in the gut. You never know with Daddy.

He looks over at me. “Nah, no need.”

He doesn’t seem quite as mad. Maybe the people he was looking for not showing up before sunset eased his mind some. Maybe if they, whoever they are, haven’t come by now they’re not coming. A part of me is dying to ask him who he’s looking for and why they might be coming all the way up here, but a bigger part of me tells me to keep my damn mouth shut. 

He hops down off the tailgate and I slide down, trying not to make any noise when I land, even if it hurts, which it does. He puts the tailgate up and heads off, shotgun in the crook of his arm, the box of shells in his crippled left hand.  He has to hold the box against his stomach; he hasn’t been able to close the fingers of that hand since the accident with the hay baler half a dozen years ago. The doctors had told him he was lucky to still have the hand. They couldn’t give him back much control over the fingers, though, so it was more a claw than anything else. All this time gone by and he’s still mad about that, still talks about the Trent family like they held him and shoved his hand in there on purpose. Everybody, including me, knew his sleeve got caught in the machinery and the oldest Trent boy had saved his whole arm, cutting that sleeve before it could pull him in up to the shoulder. Quick with a knife, that boy was, but Daddy, as far as I know, never thanked him for that. The Trents paid the hospital bills, too. I think he did mumble something to them about that, but it was hard for him.

And there’s part of all that I understand, at least a little. Daddy never wanted to owe any man anything. They say pride is a sin, but I don’t know. Daddy doesn’t have much but pride, so I think I know why he hangs on to it so tight and gets so mad when he has to take a big swallow. I get that. I just wish us folks that have to live with him didn’t have to suffer when he thinks he’s lost face. I start to follow him toward the house.

He’s limping again. I wonder if somebody on the job kicked his ass today and that’s what this is about, but I know better than to bring it up. Ever since the baler thing he’s had to take whatever job he can — I’ve seen him rig a piece of rope into a sling so he can carry heavier stuff — but I know there’s a lot of young men out there that can work him into the ground, and they’re the kind that would let him know it every day. Tomatoes are just coming in and just like every year he’s mostly at the Wilcox place again, a big farm with greenhouses and fields full of plants. He’s up against all those Mexicans that sneak across the border; he hates the sight of them. He told me once that those brown-skinned bastards never stopped for a break, just kept on, shaming all the good white folks around them. I wonder if that’s who I was supposed to be watching for.

I give up thinking about it and start toward the house when, pretty far off, I see headlights.

A Rough Sketch of Boone as Everyman

Most of my career has been spent working with the “labeled” children. Socially maladjusted, oppositional/defiant, conduct disorder, juvenile delinquent, sexual predator, chemically dependent, criminal, alcoholic, clinically depressed, and so on. The ones out on the fringes of society, ignored for the most part, vilified or dismissed out of hand when they are noticed at all. It’s been said that one of the worst things that can be done to an individual or a group is to take away their voice, and these teenagers, like many other groups of outliers, have certainly been unable to speak to the larger community without their labels drowning out anything they might have to say.

The young people I spent my time and attention on had most of the characteristics one would expect, given the stereotype. Mistrust or open defiance of authority, anger simmering just under the surface and sometimes erupting into rage, hopelessness, inability to understand or function in the larger society, helplessness, refusal to follow the simplest norms of language or behavior – all these were present to a greater or lesser degree in the teens I worked with in the classroom or out in the field.

But there was also a side of them that usually gets dismissed as an aberration, if it is mentioned at all. These young people all had, often buried under layers of rage and mistrust, a desire to learn how to be a successful adult, to figure out how the world worked, to learn how to navigate the adult world they were about to enter. They all knew, even though they were reluctant to admit it, that adulthood was coming at them like a freight train, that they soon would be adults whether they wanted to be or not, and that they didn’t know how to be one. They, all of them, wanted to learn. For some of them this desire had been shamed or ridiculed or beaten almost completely out of them, but it never entirely disappeared. Entering the adult world was a step they recognized on some level as inevitable, and they wanted to get it right. One unintended result of being ignored or treated as unimportant is an independent streak, a determination to stand on one’s own two feet. The fact that it is often misplaced does nothing to diminish the validity of the drive; it will express itself one way or another. Misplaced, it can result in an attitude of disregard for others except as objects to be used, avoided, or overcome. Channeled, it is the same drive admired by society at large in our more successful members. It is present in these children, and is a valuable resource indeed. 

The strength and potential of this resource is almost never explored or even acknowledged by the larger society.

And that is our loss, yours and mine. What I found working with these children is that, like most groups that we characterize as “other,” they are much more like us than not. Our practice of cutting them off from society, whether actively or passively done, does not make us stronger. On the contrary, it weakens us as a society and as members of the human family.

Boone, the protagonist in the series I am writing, was conceived as a distillation of the young people I spent so much of my time with over the years. He is not patterned after any one of them, but their struggles, prejudices, insights and occasional triumphs are his as well as theirs. He is a modern-day teenage Everyman, stumbling toward adulthood with little in the way of assets and a long list of survival skills that often work against him. He realizes early on that his biggest job is to unlearn most of the stuff his daddy taught him, but finds his father’s voice in his head so powerful that many times it’s impossible to ignore. He has little in the way of life experience that leads him to think of people in general as trustworthy, and so his suspicions often take the lead. The thought of having a happy life is so foreign as to be outside his imagination.

Like the young people I worked with, though, he wants to figure things out. On some level, he is tired of being ignorant and uncertain of what to do or say in the most mundane of societal interactions, and is frustrated with being dismissed or ignored completely. His ability to read people, a handy trait in the average person and a survival skill in those living on the edge, is blunted by his father’s misguided teachings about how the world works and so fails him at important moments both dangerous and potentially hopeful. He is angry at his father for the abuse he suffered in the past, for leaving him alone in the world, but also for the lessons his father taught him that Boone is having to unlearn to make any progress toward a functional life. This anger often hamstrings him but just as often, and more importantly, serves as a driving force to set these useless lessons aside.

Boone is sixteen at the beginning of the series, but could just as easily be fifteen or seventeen. He lives in an unnamed rural area in East Tennessee; the precise location is unimportant for purposes of the story. Boone is the narrator in this first person, present tense series, so the only insights are those Boone himself has. This means, among other things, that if there are several possible responses to a situation and Boone only sees two, he acts on his knowledge that there are only two options. This is sometimes frustrating for the reader who has to endure the results of Boone’s limited understanding of how things work. It is also one of the more difficult parts of writing Boone’s story, but the struggle was not without rewards. Boone is rough-hewn, and angry, and socially inept, but he’s trying.

I wanted to tell Boone’s story because these children are seldom heard and their story, like your story and mine, is rich and layered and worth the telling. And also because they need someone to hear their story. They need someone to listen. Being heard is part of belonging.

These young people, easily dismissed in casual interactions as at best uninteresting and at worst dangerous, are very much like us if we’re willing to look just a little bit below the surface, if we’re willing to do the work that tears down the walls. Like Boone, they know little about societal niceties, but they do know if the person they’re interacting with is genuine. As soon as they sense insincerity, condescension, or a superior attitude they know what game is being played out even if they can’t give it a sophisticated name. If they decide we’re playing that game, they will base their future interactions with us on that decision. On the other hand, if they decide we’re the real thing, everything changes, and our common humanity becomes visible and is a starting point for all kinds of possibilities. But only a starting point.

It doesn’t happen at once, of course. One young man I worked with took years to open up and let us in. An expectation of instant gratification on our part will almost certainly destroy whatever mutually respectful relationship we might be beginning to build, leaving us with the same old adversarial relationships both of us know all too well. Most of these youth have extensive experience of being lied to, manipulated, and treated like something barely worth noticing. They recognize the moment when we give up on them; they’ve seen it thousands of times already. If we are to welcome them into the larger family that they are rightful members of, there is work to be done, no question about it. 

Somebody has to go first. It should be us.

Somebody has to refuse to give up. Again, it should be us.

It isn’t easy, but the rewards are significant. Besides, it’s the right thing to do.

Appalachian Fiction

Looking for an alternative to Hillbilly Elegy? The Boone series (three books; the fourth is in process) is a first person fictional account of the life of an Appalachian teen in the aftermath of his abusive childhood. Pushing Back, Matching Scars, and Keeping Secrets take Boone from 16 years old through 19, stumbling toward adulthood after his family disintegrates over the course of a single weekend. The fourth book (no title yet) is 40k words into the first draft.

Links on my website, under the catalog tab, along with links to my children’s books (available in English and Spanish).

Stay safe and keep in touch,