Tales From a Free-Range Childhood

Image of Tales from a Free-Range Childhood
Release Date: 
March 1, 2011
John F. Blair
Reviewed by: 

From the photo on the cover—(taken by his father Joe with a 616 Kodak box camera) of young Davis hugging a teddy bear—to the strings of hilarious and touching stories, Donald Davis takes us on a journey. This is not just his story, however, as a master storyteller, he not only tells you about himself, but also strikes familiar notes that reach into each listener’s memory bank.

These tales contain nuggets of wisdom. They are funny at first: the fate of bookmobile offerings, or touching—the story of a little classmate whose Valentine mailbox was mostly empty until a teacher turned the tables. But consistently, they leave a post-narrative message in our inbox.

The writing style is conversational. Mini-oral histories are put to paper for a reading audience. They capture slices of life in North Carolina in the 1940s and 1950s. What comes through is a voice that is strong enough to take you along on each adventure and also wise enough to keep you thinking. An ironic twist here and there will illustrate the wisdom of parents or teachers. All stories tend to leave the reader with a certain “Aha!” moment.

Young Donald is always thinking—of ways to terrorize his brother Joe or score an “end run” in a plot with his dad. He mixes bravado with chicken-hearted fear, but usually lands on his feet, possibly a little wiser. One story relates his ability to get fired from babysitting by getting his mother so mad “she totally lost her punctuation.” In another story, an elderly babysitter was not quite as easily flummoxed.

Readers will react differently to each story depending on their own life experiences. Some will remember folktales passed down from kids in the higher grades when the author spins a yarn about “the ancient Ms. Harrell’s electric paddle.” Others might remember transforming a younger sibling “from Shirley Temple to Benjamin Franklin” as Davis did to brother Joe. His father’s “sanction” for this deed is memorable, as is his solution for averting a football’s flight through a picture window in their new house. Maybe you were terrified by fox tails draped around a lady’s shoulders at church. You, too, may remember your first independent trip to another town without benefit of parental supervision.

Donald Davis captures glimpses of that period. He does so in a way that is clear, unabashed, and loaded with motivation to begin to gather your own tales for posterity. In this sense, they are reminiscent of the work of Alexander McCall Smith, whose stories hold important life’s lessons sometimes disguised in a simple adventure or tale. Both authors offer their insight—if one only takes a moment to reflect.

The acid test of Mr. Davis’s power is in the retelling of his tales. Try relating one to a friend or spouse. Chances are you will find a glint of recognition in the listener’s eyes followed by outright laughter and hilarity—and maybe a few stories of his own.