The Clock of Life by Nancy Klann-Moren is a Southern USA coming of age story about a boy called Jason Lee who lives with his widowed mother and his uncle, who was injured in Vietnam and still suffers from the remains of shrapnel in his brain. The book details Jason Lee’s emergence from innocence as he finds out the truth about his father’s death in the Vietnam war and, more significantly, about his civil rights activities in the sixties.
The story begins in 1974 when Jason Lee begins school. He meets his best-friend-to-be Samson, an African American boy, and Culver and Eugene Chubb call him a nigger-lover for the first, and not the last, time. J.L soon becomes aware of the racial prejudice that surrounds him and of its damaging effects on people. When he discovers his father’s journal about his role in the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march, he feels a sense of pride and rightness in his father’s actions. His father’s story helps to give him the courage to stand up for what is right and is the beginning of J.L working out what he believes is important and what he wants to do with his life.
The story takes a leisurely pace but moves steadily, building up the background of and our connection with the characters. J.L narrates his story in a simple, matter-of-fact way so that we get a real sense of him and his life and, in particular, how he is changed by what happens to him. He doesn’t tell us about the characters around him, he shows their characters by describing what they do and say. I felt as if I sat on that porch with him and his Uncle Mooks. J.L’s life seems very ordinary, so when the unthinkable shatters it, the event has more power than it would in a story full of dramatic events.
The story is unassuming but powerful. It shows the continuing ravages of the Vietnam war on those who fought in it and on the wives and children of those who died in it. Uncle Mooks says they called the Vietnam war a conflict, but conflicts are for solving by talking through, not by fighting. This simple but profound statement by Mooks is characteristic of this otherwise damaged man, and the book has many little gems like this. J.L has always thought of his father as a Vietnam hero, but he comes to see that the more important fight was and still is the one for civil rights and racial equality. He realises that his father’s action in marching with his black brothers is what makes him the real hero.
As his mother says, his father fought so that Jason Lee and Samson could be friends. This honoring of the bravery of those early civil rights activists and drawing inspiration from their actions is the second theme that weaves through the pages of this fine novel.
Technically, as far as I could see, this novel is flawless. It has a strong voice, well-drawn characters, a realistic and moving plot, and important, well-expressed themes. The editing is of a high standard, and the writing has the occasional gem like this one: Her handwriting looked like a delicate thread had broken off its spool and spilled onto the paper.
The story is enjoyable, moving and informative, shedding light on a period of US history as experienced by those who were either directly involved or who lives were affected by the events both at the time and for years after.
All up, this is a truly excellent and thought-provoking book. I highly recommend it.