Lloyd Augustine Clausen has but one early memory of his real mother, in which she hugs him tightly displaying a deep love for him. Everything that follows is chaos and fear. He is handed over to an orphanage and by the time he is four or five years old, Lloyd knows two things: his adoptive Pa and Ma do not love him, and his role on the farm is to shut up and do as he is told. He takes Pa’s lunch pail out to him daily and tries to stay out of Ma’s way. For her part, Ma simply ignores him unless he does even the smallest thing wrong, inciting her evil temper.
Had it not been for the daring protection of the farm’s two dogs, Buster and Minnie, Lloyd might well have been seriously injured or even killed by his adoptive mother. For example, one day he trips and falls down, breaking some eggs. Unconcerned whether or not he is hurt, Ma attacks him with a frying pan, only to be stopped by Buster. Another time, when Pa is in town playing cards, his Ma has a mysterious visitor come to the farm. When she locks Lloyd in the cellar, a place of total darkness, Buster finds a way to get his nose into the small space and offer comfort. Buster and Minnie, in fact, behave more like parents than the ones with whom he’s stuck.
A friendly, mostly silent farmhand stays for a while and teaches Lloyd the art of machine repair and other skills needed to tend the farm, as Pa is increasingly lackluster in that regard. When the Great Depression hits, the family is often on the verge of starvation.
Lloyd’s bright moments come when he spends time with a fellow orphan, Delores, condemned like him to be tricked, spat on and called “bastard” by the other, un-adopted children. A wandering cowboy once offers him a ride on his horse. Gypsies make him a fishing pole. And occasionally, neighbors, seeing the boy’s plight, step in to assure that Ma and Pa treat him better.
Despite his terrible existence, Lloyd sometimes finds inspiration in the world of nature or the random kindness of others. As Lloyd grows older, he begins to research his past and through a series of serendipitous events, begins to find the answers he seeks.
In 1979, author Dennis Clausen learned that his father Lloyd, who had been a distant but loving figure for him, was dying of cancer. He encouraged his father to write his memoir. The old man’s words, painfully written out on a few notepads, displayed a great talent for storytelling. Those words form the basis of this luminous coming-of-age saga of sorrow upon sorrow and the will of one little boy to keep looking for a better way.
Bleak scenes of a weeks-long blizzard, a plague quarantine, and a tornado worthy of The Wizard of Oz provide lowering drama, as if the boy’s personal woes – being socked around by Ma, belted by Pa, and almost thrashed by school children until a local bully took his side – were not severe and frustrating enough. The direct effects of the Depression and then, rumors of World War II through the tinny voice of Roosevelt on the radio, fill out the historical picture. And, happily, the book’s ending is a kind of victory for the tough, lonely fighter.
Clausen has skillfully woven his father’s handwritten pages into a riveting story worthy of Steinbeck, a cinematic setting redolent of fundamental American community values, and a paean of hope for all orphaned children.