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A storm is brewing in the all-but-forgotten backcountry of Kentucky. And, for young Orbie Ray, the swirling heavens may just have the power to tear open his family’s darkest secrets. Then Like The Blind Man: Orbie’s Story is the enthralling debut novel by Freddie Owens, which tells the story of a spirited wunderkind in the segregated South of the 1950s and the forces he must overcome to restore order in his world. Rich in authentic vernacular and evocative of a time and place long past, this absorbing work of magical realism offered up with a Southern twist will engage readers who relish the Southern literary canon, or any tale well told.
Nine-year-old Orbie already has his cross to bear. After the sudden death of his father, his mother Ruby has off and married his father’s coworker and friend Victor, a slick-talking man with a snake tattoo. Since the marriage, Orbie, his sister Missy, and his mother haven’t had a peaceful moment with the heavy-drinking, fitful new man of the house. Orbie hates his stepfather more than he can stand; this fact lands him at his grandparents’ place in Harlan’s Crossroads, Kentucky, when Victor decides to move the family to Florida without including him. In his new surroundings, Orbie finds little to distract him from Granpaw’s ornery ways and constant teasing jokes about snakes.
As Orbie grudgingly adjusts to life with his doting Granny and carping Granpaw, who are a bit too keen on their black neighbors for Orbie’s taste, not to mention their Pentecostal congregation of snake handlers, he finds his world views changing, particularly when it comes to matters of race, religion, and the true cause of his father’s death. He befriends a boy named Willis, who shares his love of art, but not his skin color. And, when Orbie crosses paths with the black Choctaw preacher, Moses Mashbone, he learns of a power that could expose and defeat his enemies, but can’t be used for revenge. When a storm of unusual magnitude descends, he happens upon the solution to a paradox that is both magical and ordinary. The question is, will it be enough?
Equal parts Hamlet and Huckleberry Finn, it’s a tale that’s both rich in meaning, timely in its social relevance, and rollicking with boyhood adventure. The novel mines crucial contemporary issues, as well as the universality of the human experience while also casting a beguiling light on boyhood dreams and fears. It’s a well-spun, nuanced work of fiction that is certain to resonate with lovers of literary fiction, particularly in the grand Southern tradition of storytelling.
EVERYBODY ON EDGE
Thursday, June 6th 1959
Momma and even Victor said I’d be coming to St. Petersburg with them. They’d been saying it for weeks. Then Victor changed his mind. He was my stepdaddy, Victor was. It would be easier on everybody, he said, if I stayed with Granny and Granpaw in Kentucky. Him and Momma had enough Florida business to take care of without on top of everything else having to take care of me too. I was a handful, Victor said. I kept everybody on edge. If you asked me, the only edge everybody was kept on was Victor’s. As far as I was concerned, him and Momma could both go to hell. Missy too. I was fed up trying to be good. Saying everything was okay when it wasn’t. Pretending I understood when I didn’t.
Momma’s car was a 1950 model. Daddy said it was the first Ford car to come automatic. I didn’t know what ‘automatic’ was but it sure had silver ashtrays, two of them on the back of the front seats. They were all popped open with gum wrappers and cigarette butts and boy did they smell.
One butt fell on top a bunch of comic books I had me in a pile. The pile leaned cockeyed against my dump truck. Heat came up from there, little whiffs of tail pipe smoke, warm and stuffy like the insides of my tennis shoes.
It rattled too – the Ford car did. The glove box. The mirrors. The windows. The knobs on the radio. The muffler under the floorboard. Everything rattled.
We’d been traveling hard all day, barreling down Road 3 from Detroit to Kentucky. Down to Harlan’s Crossroads. I sat on the edge of the back seat, watching the fence posts zoom by. Missy stood up next to the side window, sucking her thumb, the fingers of her other hand jammed between her legs. She was five years old. I was nine.
I’d seen pictures of Florida in a magazine. It had palm trees and alligators and oranges. It had long white beaches and pelicans that could dive-bomb the water. Kentucky was just old lonesome farmhouses and brokeback barns. Gravel roads and chickens in the yard.
Road 3 took us down big places like Fort Wayne and Muncie. It took us down a whole bunch of little places too, places with funny names like Zaneville and Deputy and Speed.
Missy couldn’t read.
“Piss with care,” I said.
“Oh Orbie, you said a bad word.”
“No. Piss with care, Missy. That sign back there. That’s what it said.”
Missy’s eyes went wide. “It did not. Momma’ll whip you.”
Later on we got where there was a curve in the road and another sign. “Look Missy. Do not piss.”
“It don’t say that.”
“Yes it does. See. When the road goes curvy like that you’re not supposed to pee. But when it’s straight, it’s okay; but you have to do it careful cause that’s what the sign says. Piss with care!”
“It don’t say that.”
We crossed a big pile of water on a bridge with towers and giant ropey things looping down. On the other side was Louisville, Kentucky. After that was just small towns and little white stores with red gas-pumps, farm houses and big barns and fields, empty fields and fields of corn and fields where there were cows and horses and pigs and long rows of tobacco plants Momma said cigarettes was made of.
I had me a war on all the towns going down.
Tat Tat Tat Tat! Blam! There goes Cox Creek!
Bombs away over Nazareth!
Blam! Blam! Boom! Hodgekinsville never had a chance!
“Let’s keep it down back there!” Victor said.
“A grenade rolled into Victor’s lap!” I whispered. “BlamOOO! Blowed him to smithereens!”
I wished Momma’d left him back there in Toledo like she said she would. She was always threatening around like that, but then she would get to feeling sorry and forget all about it. She’d been mad ever since Victor spilled the beans about Daddy. Victor was mad too, drinking his beer and driving Momma’s Ford too fast. After Louisville he started throwing his empties out the window.
I liked to watch them bust on the road.
“Pretty country, Kentucky,” Victor said.