Author: William Maxwell
Description: Illinois native William Maxwell enjoyed a long, illustrious writing career. As his writing life was winding down, Maxwell penned an autobiographical, coming of age story about how events leading up to and following a murder in his small town of Lincoln, Illinois changed his perceptions of life. Resulting was So Long, See You Tomorrow, a perceptive novella which garnered the American Book Award.
Born in 1908, Maxwell enjoyed life in small town Lincoln, Illinois. A farming community in close proximity to the state capitol Springfield, the make up of the town was pretty much homogenous. One was either an in town person or a farmer who only came into town for errands and church. Even the school a one room, one size fits all classroom that went up through the eighth grade. In 1918 tragedy struck. After giving birth to Maxwell’s youngest brother, his mother died of pneumonia two days later. His father did not know how to raise three boys on his own, so he sold the house the family had always lived in, and moved to a modest home on the outskirts of town. It was there, that he remarried Maxwell’s stepmother Grace McGrath, and at age thirteen, the narrator met companion Cletus Smith, the focal point of this story.
Smith had moved into town with his mother following a tragic event that had upset the fabric of the town. Smith’s mother was never suited to be a farmer yet she married Clarence Smith because he was available to her as a husband. Eventually, Fern Smith grew disillusioned with her marriage and engaged in an affair with her neighbor Lloyd Wilson. Because Lincoln was a tiny community, the whole town eventually talked about their business, which lead both couples to divorce, the women taking custody of the children. It was in this regard that Maxwell met Smith, and the two became best buddies until Smith’s mother moved the family beyond the gossip to Chicago. Later on, Maxwell’s father was offered a job opportunity in Chicago, and the family moved there as well. Maxwell and Smith ended up at the same high school, yet despite the closeness they once shared, Smith felt uncomfortable around someone who knew his past, and the two went their separate ways.
Fifty years later, Maxwell decided to reconstruct these events and the result was this novella. His writing is gritty, as his thirteen year old protagonist self sets about to dissect how the relations of two families who had once been close ripped apart the fabric of a community. The prose is raw and introspective and while I did not have any emotional attachment to the adults, I felt for the children whose lives had been effected by the poor choices of their parents. These events occurred at a time when children were not exposed to adult conversations and issues. Grappling with adult issues during this era must have caused the Smith and Wilson children much internal turmoil. Even Maxwell could not let the Smith-Wilson affair rest fifty years later and set about through his contacts in the publishing industry to reconstruct it. Only when he discovered the broad scope of the Lincoln tragedy of his childhood through his adult eyes could he let it rest.
I found So Long, See You Tomorrow to be a poignant look at how tragedy forces children to grow up too fast, and, unfortunately, this is true in any era. The prose was rich and introspective as Maxwell writes from many points of view to include all the key players in this tragedy. The result was a powerful, coming of age novella that won the 1980 American Book Award. I would like to thank my goodreads friend Carol for referring me to this book though her review because if not, this novella was not even on my radar. I rate this powerful So Long, See You Tomorrow 4 stars, and I will most likely look to read more of Maxwell’s work in the future.
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