"My name is James Leland Hickam, and I was born with a surname that was synonymous for trouble throughout southeastern Ohio. I hail from a heathen mix of thieves, moonshiners, drunkards, and general anti-socials that for decades have clung to both the hard-scrabble hills and the iron bars of every jail cell in the region."
So begins Robin Yocum's new novel, The Essay. To say that Jimmy Lee, a high school senior, has suffered his entire life from poverty would be an understatement. In the Appalachians of Ohio, poverty isn't unusual. Jimmy Lee's family, though, brings it to a whole other level with poverty breeding and fueling defeatist, indifferent alcoholism that precludes any sense of normalcy. Jimmy Lee, by virtue of his unlucky birth, is expected to fail...by his parents, by society. He's been written off, as it were.
His alcoholic father defies understanding:
"I don't think Nick Hickam ever wanted any of his sons to make more of their lives than he had made of his, and he was secretly glad that my brothers were failures. That fact that they had no more education than he had, and one was an inmate and the other a carnie, allowed Dad to maintain his stature in the family."While his mother, an abused wife with every emotion physically beat out of her, has nothing left to give her youngest child. Sibling support is out of the question, his brothers having fallen victim to expectations long ago.
Are you thoroughly depressed yet?
Don't despair. Enter [stage left] one high school English teacher who still believes that there is potential in every child. Even Jimmy Lee. For a child who has never even entertained the thought of escape from the vicious cycle of poverty, a high school degree - let alone attending college - seems both enticing and fantastical daydreaming.
Jimmy Lee finds both help and hope in the most unexpected of places. His football coach, even his newly-released-from-prison older brother, Edgel ("Even by the questionable standards of the Hickams, there was just something wrong with the way Edgel was wired.") But is this belief enough?
As it turns out, no, it is not. For every adult who believes in Jimmy Lee, there are a myriad of others who fall victim to prejudice and go out of their way to keep a Hickam where he belongs: in the dirt.
So why do you need to read this novel? Because it is the best "Feel Good" novel you will read this year. It will restore your belief in humanity and it may just make you a better person. What better reason than that? Just read it. And when you finish it, come back here and tell us how much you loved this book....
Title: The Essay
Author: Robin Yocum
Publisher: Arcade Publishing
Recommended via: The Book Maven on Twitter!
Rating: 4.5 star