The Boy on the Porch
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This issue’s cover illustration is from Finding Jennifer Jones by Anne Cassidy. Thanks to Hot Key Books for their help with this January cover and to Atom for their support of the Authorgraph interview with Keren David.
‘The young couple found the child asleep in an old cushioned chair on the front porch.’ Straight in. This is how it was - the voice of an oral storyteller. That’s how the book begins; and, maybe fifteen years and 150 pages later, with that same sleeper in that same chair, that’s how it ends.
The boy has been left for Marta and John to find. There is a note, asking them to care for him until ‘Wil be bak wen we can’. Time and place are sparsely defined. An isolated farm in rural America, for sure. There’s a battered blue truck, but not much more. No money to spare, but sufficient food on the table. Perhaps we’re between the wars. The lack of detail is fine, for The Boy on the Porch is as much fable as novel.
The boy never speaks, but he talks through tapping on an arm, a fence post, the back of an animal; or by drumming out rhythms on cans and bottles. Marta and John have no kids, don’t know anything about kids. But as soon as Jacob comes – the note gave his name, but they think of him rather as ‘the boy’ – they want to learn about kids more than anything, since they know at once how to love. Their beagle knows how to love too – better than they do to begin with. He too had just turned up one day, as did a cow which they found mysteriously tethered to a post. The boy, astride the cow, with the beagle trotting alongside – talking together without difficulty, it seems - go off on adventures around the farm.
John will trade his belt or a well-worn coat at Shep’s general store and bring home a second-hand guitar, an old drum set or a box of used paints. Jacob will take them, and within a day or so, make music ‘as if he were re-creating the sounds of the forest and the dawn and the mountains, all rolled together’; or paint pictures, full of swirling colours which grow into scenes where flowers grow out of chimneys or barns roost in treetops. While Marta gets on with loving Jacob through the days, John cannot help but worry. What about school and reading and writing and other kids and Laws about keeping a child who is not yours? And what’ll happen when the writer of that note comes back?
Which he does, of course; ‘I’m his father and I’ve come for him’. Everything comes crashing down. But not for long, since Marta and John are as resilient as the land they farm, and Jacob has taught them so much about kids and each other. So though they ache to hear from Jacob and fear for him with that thin, mean-spirited father, who had no time for music and painting – despite all of that, they know there are other children who need loving and raising, and so they take up fostering. Up to seven kids at a time, while still desperately hoping the sleeper in the chair will come back one day.
Sharon Creech’s voice is unmistakeable and to be trusted. All of this could seem folksy and vacuous, but it doesn’t. Simple in language, wise in thought. Childlike but not sentimental. Out of time, beyond place. Like the very best of traditional tales and fables. A child could understand it.