10/02/01
Jimmy Carter's An Hour Before Daylight
    by John Cech

It's former president Jimmy Carter's birthday this week, and he has given us the present this year with his new book, An Hour Before Daylight: Memories of a Rural Boyhood. Mr. Carter grew up during the Depression in that dirt-poor part of southern Georgia that is, in his words, "as level as any you will ever see. As people have always said, 'When it rains the water don't know which way to run.'" This is the land around Plains, Georgia, though much of Mr. Carter's vivid recollection of these times is set just a little bit further west, in a tiny settlement called Archery, where the Carter family farm was located, and where Mr. Carter spent virtually all of his childhood.

His father was what Mr. Carter called a "middle income landowner," which meant that, for the most part, he oversaw the farming of his land by the black tenant farm families that lived in the small cabins that were clustered around the Carter's home. Mr. Carter grew up with these African American families, and especially with Jack and Rachel Clark, with whom he often stayed when his parents were away, sleeping on a pallet on the floor of their house. Mr. Carter admired both of the Clarks enormously: Rachel Clark taught him how to fish, and she, even more than his parents, Mr. Carter reports, taught him his fundamental spiritual and moral values. Her husband, Jack, was the skillful, generous-spirited foreman of the Carter spread, who started each day by ringing the farm's bell "an hour before daylight."

It was a difficult childhood by any measure, filled with back-breaking work, broken bones, and a slough of afflictions. At one point, Mr. Carter recalls, in rather grisly detail, how he operated on himself for a splinter that had become a very painful, infection so that he could pitch in and help with the peanut harvest and not disappoint his father by being unable to work. There were also the regular bouts of ringworm and hookworm, boils, carbuncles, and sties -- some of which came from being without shoes for a good part of the year. But there wasn't anything, Mr. Carter tells us, that he would have traded for the joys of going barefoot and the way it connected him with the ground through " an immersion in the sand, loam, and red clay that seems natural and constant." Nor is there anything that one would want to trade for Mr. Carter's moving account of his young self and these families, black and white, whose lives along these dusty roads he has woven into a gritty, tragic and transcendent poetry.

Copyright 2001 by John Cech

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Wednesday, 04-Sep-2002 22:24:38 EDT


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