PIG BOY'S WICKED BIRD: A MEMOIR by Doug Crandell
I grew up in Peru, Indiana, and Doug Crandell grew up in Wabash, Indiana-just 16 miles apart. We are about the same age. We are both writers. Despite this, we only met recently, at a book signing of seventy Indiana writers (who knew there were that many of us?). Another thing we have in common: Doug and I are the only ones who bring our parents. My mom says, "He's so nice," and immediately starts reading his memoir on the drive home. Every so often, she chuckles to herself.
"What's the book about?" I ask.
"Well," she says, "it's about this little boy who grows up on a hog farm."
"Is that why he's called pig boy?"
"Sort of," she says. "It's a surprise. I don't want to ruin it for you."
"What's a wicked bird?"
"His middle finger gets cut off in some machinery, and they have to sew it back on. His brothers tell him that if anyone gives him any guff to. . . you know, flip them the bird. A wicked bird."
A few months later, I'm talking on the phone about my book, recording an interview with a public radio station in Iowa, and they ask, "What are you reading these days?" Damn. I'm not reading anything except my students' stories. I see Pig Boy on top of my "books to read" pile and give them the name. "What's it about?" they ask, and I quote my mom: "It's this great memoir about a little boy who grows up on a hog farm who gets his middle finger cut off in some machinery." A few days later, I'm packing my suitcase to fly home to Indiana and decide I'd better bring Pig Boy.
On the plane, I start reading Pig Boy. Come to find out, Doug Crandell and I had very different childhoods; the seven Ds (parents Dan and Doris, and kids Darren, Derrick, Dina, Doug, and Dana) would have considered me (and this is hilarious) a "city girl." The young Doug Crandell described in Pig Boy reminds me of a boy I went to grade school with, Joey, who got on the bus each morning, proudly smelling of pig. Joey wanted to be a hog man, and I have to wonder if he ever did. As Crandell says:
We wanted to become great Agri-Kings of the Midwest but with all the perks of the suburban lifestyle, too. It would prove to be our undoing, a whole generation of farm kids who now are bankers and grocery store managers, salesmen, and teachers, middle-aged people all across the Midwest who still remember wanting badly for Christmas a Walkman but who still needed coveralls for chores.
The reason I'm flying home to Indiana is this: my grandpa is dying. When the plane lands, I drive straight to the nursing home (it's called- and no, I'm not making this up-Miller's Merry Manor). We're all there, my entire family, watching Grandpa breathe, and someone asks what I'm reading. Mom says, "It's a book by this nice boy who grew up over in Wabash." Whenever I put the book down, someone picks it up and starts reading, amazed that I'm not the only person who ever thought to write about this place.
My grandpa dies that afternoon. There's much to do-planning the funeral, buying a suit, making sure my grandma eats and isn't too much alone-but I keep reading.
In Pig Boy, Doug Crandell saves runt piglets from extermination, rescuing them from the farrowing house, nursing them with leftover milk from cereal bowls. Crandell, his maimed hand protected by a Wonder bread wrapper, identifies with these imperfect runts. His mother is damaged, too, but on the inside; first, a hysterectomy makes her "not a woman anymore," and, without the benefit of hormone therapy, a deep depression ensues that turns her into a stranger. "Your mother wants you to soak your fingers," she says, reminding him of his doctor-prescribed Epson soaks. "It was the first time I heard her talk in the third person. . .I'd get used to it, we all would, but now it sounded as creepy as a mummy's voice in some black-and-white horror movie." The healthy D's work harder, struggling to pay the mounting medical bills, while Mom stays up all night, turning the bathroom into a Bicentennial extravaganza. It's the summer of 1976. Jimmy Carter is running for President, and Doug Crandell keeps a photograph of the toothy peanut farmer tucked inside his copy of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. Our shared love of this book is why the adult Doug Crandell and I started corresponding. When my mom finished Pig Boy, she read Winesburg, too, a book I gave her a long time ago. I'm convinced that she finally read it, not because I told her to, but because "that nice boy from Wabash" did.
The day of the funeral, I happen to check my email and (no, I'm not making this up) there's one from Doug. Hey, he says, some public radio station in Iowa is recommending our books and do I know about this? I write him back, explaining the connection, and mention that I'm writing from Peru, that my grandpa just died. Three hours later, I'm at Flower's Leedy Funeral Home (the other funeral home in Peru is called-and no, I'm not making this up-Eikenberry-Eddy. . .get it? I-can-bury-Eddy). I'm checking who sent flowers, when I spot a green, verdant plant. The name typed on the card is DOUG CRANDELL. I show this to my mom, who says, "He's such a nice boy." It turns out that Doug-who lives in Georgia and is finishing his next book, The All-American Industrial Motel, also a memoir-called his mother Doris, who still lives in Wabash, and she checked the local paper, found my grandpa's obituary, and called the florist.
About the Midwest, about Indiana, I've heard people say, "How do people live there? What do they do?" To them I say, read this book. This is what we do. We take care of one another. •
Cathy Day is the author of The Circus in Winter (Harcourt, 2004), which was a finalist for the inaugural Story Prize award. This fall, she will begin teaching in the MFA program at Pitt.
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