Then Again The Novel

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Red Sky at Morning by Richard Bradford

A few decades ago, my sister phoned. It's a good thing I recognized her voice, because she was laughing so hard, I couldn't understand a word she said. When she finally pulled herself together, her first understandable words--"My son just threw me out of bed"--didn't exactly clarify things.

Eventually I learned that my sister Clarissa, mother of five, had been lying beside her three-year-old son, Bobbie, to help him settle into a nap. To stave off boredom, she picked up a novel I had given her some years earlier and began to read. Then she began to laugh. Then she laughed harder. Then Bobbie asked her to leave, complaining Mommy's laughter was making the bed bounce and keeping him awake. Still gasping for air, she called me: "I had no idea you could read a book and laugh like this."

In our family, I was the book lover; my sister had little use for them. When we were teenagers, she would taunt, "You know all about books and I know all about life," not entirely without justification.

I do love books. I couldn't begin to guess how many I've read over the years, and yet this one--the one that made my sister laugh--stands out like the brightest diamond in a field of gems.

I picked up my first copy of Red Sky At Morning, by Richard Bradford during a routine trip to the bookstore, sometime around 1970. I know lots of folks read their favorite books more than once, but I have rarely done so. This book is different. I loved it as I have loved few--perhaps none--before or since. After I read it several times, I told everyone I knew about my amazing find. When they didn't respond appropriately--which would have been to immediately turn and flee to the to nearest bookstore--I purchased additional copies, put them in their hands and demanded: "Read this."

That Christmas, I bought dozens of copies of Red Sky at Morning and sent one to everybody on my Christmas list, including those who didn't particularly like books. That's how a copy entered my sister's house. Even though I had never seen a book in my sister's hands (beyond our school days), nor those of her husband (a police officer and volunteer fire fighter who, like my sister, preferred action over words), this book was their Christmas present that year. Their thanks when they opened my gift was enough to put the "luke" in lukewarm. I knew they weren't excited about it and would probably never read it. I didn't care. By then I was a Red Sky at Morning missionary; one copy should be in every household in America, read or unread.

When my sister, out of boredom, finally dipped into the book--and laughed--her husband Ed noticed. Curiosity made him look inside too. Now, my sister told me, they vied over who would get the book. If her husband got to it first, he would take it to work, leaving her bereft all day. So, she told me, she'd started getting up early every morning and hiding it until after he'd gone.

The two of them fighting--over a book!--warmed my heart as few things could. Who knows nothing about life!? Hah!

If you haven't encountered Red Sky at Morning, I am going to be hard pressed to make you understand why it is so special. The story is simple: Frank Arnold, a ship builder about to leave for the service in World War II, for complex reasons of his own, relocates his family from coastal Alabama to their summer home in New Mexico, to live there year round until his return. The story unfolds through the eyes of Josh, their 17-year-old son, whose high school senior year in Sagrado is bound to be nothing like the one he'd expected in Mobile.

There is the culture shock of a White Anglo-Saxon water rat suddenly transferred to an Hispanic, mostly Catholic Mountain community, at that most sensitive time in the formation of anyone's identity: the high school years. And there are the centuries old multi-layered cultural tensions in Sagrado among Anglos, Natives and Indians, where ethnic designations are rigidly defined and the mistakes of newcomers can have dire consequences.

Josh immediately throws in with Marcia and Steenie, and the three pals spend the year entertaining each other with a constant stream of witty observations of their world and challenging games of chicken, or, as they call it, "gallina."

A critic of the hit television series, Friends, once noted that we all want a group of consistently intelligent and funny friends such as those depicted on that show, and that none of us has it! I was surprised, because I do. I cannot remember a time, from childhood to this moment, when I did not have a quick and witty circle of friends. Some of my funny friends today are the same I had in youth; I simply kept them and added on as I met more over the years. Red Sky's Josh, Marcia and Steenie, and countless other characters in this book, remind me of friends I've known forever. What I wouldn't give to host a dinner party for a good many residents of Sagrado and all my friends. I have no doubt they would fit right in together without a ripple, and the conversation--and copious laughter--would be the stuff of legends.

Now, lest you think this tale is populated with an unrealistic proportion of "nice" people inhabiting a "nice" fictional story, let me assure you that no one, not even "our hero" is unflawed. This is good, because none of my friends are perfect and neither am I, and I'd want us all to get along. And Red Sky's story is hardly, "nice."

I remember how excited I was to see in 1971 that a film was being made of my favorite book! And the casting--Frank Arnold played by Richard Crenna! Josh Arnold by Richard Thomas (of John-Boy Walton fame) and William "Steenie" Stenopolous, Jr. by Desi Arnaz, Jr.! "Wow," I thought, "I couldn't have done better myself." These characters looked just as I had pictured them in the book (Marcia was played by minor actress, Catherine Burns, who did a creditable job with the role.)

With great anticipation I cued up for the opening day of the film, Red Sky at Morning, knowing full well that almost no one appreciates a favorite book when it appears on film. Nothing could have prepared me for the utter dismay I felt when I left that theater. The movie . . . was not funny. The film was, in fact, almost unrelievedly tragic, a repetitive, morose tearjerker. No one should voluntarily subject themselves to this film. Few did, and it soon left the theaters.

What in the world could have gone wrong?

I rushed home and reread the book, determined to solve this mystery.

Astonished, I realized the film had been absolutely true to the book. Every single tragic event was there. How could I have read this book cover-to-cover, not once but countless times, and not seen the tragedy? Instead, I had viewed it simply as life--the unfolding lives of ten to twenty characters at a stressful time in America's past, taking things one turn of events at a time and making the best of it. To this tale, the film had been absolutely faithful--all that was missing was the humor.

Through this film, I'd had a glimpse of what life would be like, with all its ups and downs, all its fulfilled hopes and shattered dreams, but without the humor. As one who has seen humor as a means to cope since earliest memory, and who had gathered with others who either saw things the same or served as eager audience for the rest of us, I had taken the humorous perspective to be normal. Without it, we certainly did have the same story, only now you wanted to rush out and hang yourself while there was still time, instead of making the best of things while planning that next obvious step toward something better.

If I ever needed confirmation of the healthy role humor plays in my life, I certainly got it that day in 1971.

Several decades have gone by since then, and Red Sky at Morning has taken a lesser roll in my life. These days, it makes an appearance whenever I meet someone new, who sticks around long enough for me to consider them a permanent friend. Then I buy another copy of Red Sky at Morning and give it to them as the gift that now routinely means to me, "Welcome to my world." A few years ago, after many years of singleness, I met a man who interested me enough for me to want to know more. The first gift I gave him was some of my legendary homemade soup; the second was a copy of Red Sky at Morning. I think he liked both, because we eventually married.

When I was asked to write book reviews for this Web site, and to take them from various categories of literature, the first I wrote came from my current favorite genre-mystery/thrillers. For that category, I gave you was the best one I know: Rough Justice by Lisa Scottoline. For the next category, Classics, I knew instantly that, from my life's frame of reference, I could give you no greater gift than an introduction to Red Sky at Morning.

First, of course, I reread it. It had been awhile, so I was curious about what would be my current response. It was a 26-year-old, not much older than the main characters, who initially fell in love with that book. Now I'm older than the parents of those characters. Would I feel the same?

I'm happy to report that if I had a three-year-old son, he would certainly have thrown me out of bed for reading it; my many episodes of uncontrollable laughter would no doubt have interfered with his nap.

When Red Sky at Morning was first published, one reviewer commented: "Mr. Bradford believes in the human comedy the way DiMaggio believes in baseball... the way people, no matter what, believe in laughing when they might just as well be weeping." Should any of us forget that, there is, fortunately, a 256-page cure for our malaise, available at a major bookstore near you.

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