The Schooling of Claybird Catts
Janis Owens
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Buy *The Schooling of Claybird Catts* online

The Schooling of Claybird Catts

Janis Owens
304 pages
March 2003
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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With this her second novel, Janis Owens continues the great storytelling tradition of the South. Atmospheric and teeming with memorable characters, The Schooling of Claybird Catts delivers a powerful message about the ties of love and the meaning of family. This touching and funny coming-of-age story is a pure delight to read.

Clayton Michael Catts (or Claybird, as his father affectionately calls him) is the personable young narrator of his own story, which he tells with such disarming honesty and gentle humor that it is impossible not to root for him right from page one. Claybird begins his story with characteristic bluntness by saying, "To be perfectly honest, the day my father Michael died really wasn't the worst day of my life." He goes on to explain that from the perspective of an eleven-year old boy, the treats and outings organized by well-meaning adults were actually pretty fun and it is only later that he feels the excruciating pain of losing his gentle and loving father.

Owens' prose style has the effect of immediately drawing the reader into the story. She writes in Claybird's voice, skillfully reproducing the rhythm of his adolescent speech, and we cannot help but empathize with him. It is testament to Owens' skill as a writer that despite employing plenty of teenage slang, along with italics for emphasis, she never writes an ugly sentence.

Set in rural north Florida, The Schooling of Claybird Catts captures the rich texture of Southern society with the ever-present undercurrents of the region's troubled past. Claybird's parents, the wealthy owners of a furniture factory, live in a huge old house built at the turn of the century by a white banker on top of a slave graveyard. The children at Claybird's predominantly poor black school convince him that his house is haunted - it is, but not by the spirits of dead slaves; by shame in the person of the Gabe Catts, Claybird's uncle, who has been banished from the family. Claybird and his sister are fascinated by the mysterious Uncle Gabe, and, when their father dies and Gabe returns, they see him as a natural successor to the position as head of their family. Gabe does indeed marry Claybird's mother and takes a teaching position at the local middle school. Under his tuition, the dyslexic Claybird, who considered himself dumb because he was in special ed, realizes his true potential. More important, however, is the relationship between Gabe and Claybird, through which the young narrator comes to learn the true meaning of family.

Janis Owens's main strength lies in her characterization. Her plot is compelling, her message about love and acceptance inspiring, but it has been done before. What makes this novel sparkle is the memorable cast of characters: Claybird's irrepressible Granny; his strange mother and her white-trash family; the enigmatic Uncle Gabe and of course the gloriously naf Claybird himself, breathe life into this novel. The Catts family is guaranteed to make a lasting impression on the reader and in Claybird the author has created one of the most endearing narrators since Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.

© 2003 by Julia Ravenscroft for Curled Up With a Good Book

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