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
naïf 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.