To be perfectly honest, the day my father died really wasn't the worst day of my life.
When his beloved father, Michael, dies, Claybird Catts finds solace in the company of his close-knit family his mysterious and beautiful mother, Myra; his lovable, know-it-all sister, Missy; his newly grown-up brother, Simon; and his devoted grandmother, Cissie. Devastated by his loss, but secure in their love, Claybird feels as though life could almost go on as usual in their small, sleepy Southern hometown.
Until Uncle Gabe comes back.
A stranger to Claybird, Uncle Gabe is a brilliant academic who disappeared twenty years ago. Despite the deep mystery that surrounds him, Gabe's humor and intellect shine, and he quickly positions himself in the role of the Catts family's patriarch, filling the role of Claybird's dead father. Gabe and Claybird become coconspirators and best friends, until a slip of the tongue unveils the real history of their relationship, a heart-wrenching revelation that turns Claybird's world upside down.
About the Author
Janis Owens was born in Marianna, Florida, in 1960, the last child and only daughter of an Assembly of God preacher who later became a salesman for the Independent Life Insurance Company. As a child, she lived in Louisiana and Mississippi, but her heart and her literary roots can be traced to west Florida, to the old mill neighborhood where her mother was raised, that the old-timers call Magnolia Hill. A graduate of the University, of Florida, Ms. Owens lives in rural north Florida with her husband and three daughters.
Read an Excerpt
The Schooling of Claybird Catts
By Janis Owens
Chapter OneTo be perfectly honest, the day my father Michael died really wasn't the worst day of my life.
Of course, it has panned out to be the worst, but at the time, it was just the last day in a week of one fun thing after another, all part of what I later learned was a carefully constructed plot to distract us children from the inevitable. Every night my brother Simon and my sister Missy and me were wined and dined by different friends and kin, making for a fast, hectic week that peaked on Saturday, when my best friend Kenneth's Uncle Lou, who is full-blooded Italian (like Kenneth wishes he was) and very sympathetic to Daddy's plight, took Kenneth and me to Busch Gardens as he works for Anheuser-Busch and gets free tickets.
We left early that morning, before five, and got there just as the gates opened, and had a heck of a time except that I puked on the Scorpion, or just after. We'd eaten breakfast at the IHOP outside the park and I must have eaten one chocolate-chip pancake too many, for I got sick as a dog on the first loop, but was man enough to hold my bile till I made it to the bathroom. Other than that, we had a big time. Uncle Lou even bought each of us a copy of the picture they take when you come in the park that Daddy always said was such a rip-off (fifteen bucks) though maybe he (Uncle Lou, that is) got an employee discount.
In any case, I have the picture on my nightstand to this day and have to say that yes, I look quite the happy boy, not a clue in the world that my father was lying on his deathbed four hundred miles away fighting for his last breath. Just me and that idiot Kenneth grinning like possums, Uncle Lou between us, his arms draped loosely around our necks, very Italian and all, like a good-natured mafioso with his two favorite Godsons.
By the time we started home, it was nearly dark, all the little tourist towns along US 19 decorated for Christmas, each with its own enticement: mermaids and alligator farms and manatee crossings. We even stopped at some of them as Uncle Lou is divorced and kind of lonely, and all the billboards had these well-matured women in bikinis urging you to drop by. At least, I think that's why we stopped. It was too dark to see much at any of them, and as the gray December evening gave way to a cold, clear night, I began to get a little antsy with how late it was getting, and Daddy being sick at home.
I kept thinking about Mama and how worried she'd be if I was late, how she always paced around when Daddy was late from Waycross. It started eating at me, made me curse the traffic lights and silently rejoice when it got late enough that they were turned off for the night, blinking yellow through the little towns in the Big Bend till we finally made Perry, where Uncle Lou stopped for coffee and let me call home on his credit card.
It must have been something like two o'clock in the morning by then, not the perfect time for a call home, but I didn't pause for a second because for one thing, with Daddy so sick, our household routine had become hopelessly upended, and for another: my mother never sleeps anyway. I mean, hardly ever. It's one of her strange old vampire things that we'd all grown used to, never gave a second thought to knocking on her bedroom door at midnight, or calling home at odd hours of the night.
Sure enough, she answered on the second ring, not at all upset or sleepy, just her calm, matter-of-fact self, asking me where we were; if I'd had fun.
I told her it was big fun, though I'd almost puked on the Scorpion, and she was the soul of comfort. "Did it make you feel better?"
I had to admit that it did and she said good, at least it hadn't spoiled my day, then gave the phone to Daddy, said he wanted to talk to me. I could make out a rustling of sheets and the faint sound of Mama's voice on the line, calm and rock-solid, catching Daddy up on what I'd just told her, then his own voice, weak but familiar, which was a relief, as everything else about him had become so strange lately.
I mean, if he wasn't lying in his own bedroom in his own bed when I left that morning, I wouldn't even recognize him, he was so awful looking, his face so thin you could count the bones, his hair almost completely gray, and he was only forty-three. Aunt Candace (Daddy's older sister), who is a nurse, said that's what pain will do to you, age you, but still, it was very strange, and I was almost glad I couldn't actually see him, because over the phone he sounded perfectly fine, just a little tired and hoarse.
"Hey, Clayman," he said in his thin, kindly voice, for Daddy was the kind of old-school redneck who was constantly churning out terms of affection for the people he loved. He called Simon Sim or Simbo, called our sister Missy Mimi or Red (because of her red hair), and though I was technically named after my great-grandfather Clayton, he seldom (if ever) called me by my given name, but Claybird most of the time, along with Clayman and Big Man and all sorts of variations therein.
"Hey, Daddy," I replied, then I stood there at the counter and gave him a fast travelogue of the day ...
Excerpted from The Schooling of Claybird Catts by Janis Owens
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Reading Group Guide
IntroductionWhen his father dies of pancreatic cancer, 11-year-old Clayton Catts learns more than any child should ever have to about death and loss. But, as we witness in this wonderfully evocative, bittersweet and often hilarious novel, his education is only beginning. When we first meet Claybird (as he is known by his family), he is coming to terms with his father's death, struggling in school because of his dyslexia, and trying to understand his mother's erratic behavior. On top of these challenges, he must deal with tensions inherent in the life of an adolescent boy in the New South -- between redneck and hip-hop, evangelism and sexual curiosity, rich and poor, black and white. Clayton often berates himself for being a little slow on the uptake (his precocious older sister isn't any help in that regard). What makes Clayton, and this novel, so endearing is the unblinking determination with which he sorts out all of the mixed signals he's receiving from those around him. Claybird's life takes another remarkable turn when his father's estranged brother, Gabe, returns home and eventually marries his mother. Clay knows that there's something different about Gabe, and suspecting that he is homosexual, attributes his uncle's eccentric ways to that predilection. Gabe is a lightning rod for judgmental Southerners: he swears, he drinks, and he freely espouses his liberal views on everything from racism to religion. But he is also the first person to take Clayton's education seriously. By encouraging Clayton to explore his own history, Gabe shows his nephew and the rest of the "dummy" class that their personal stories are proof of their importance and self-worth.Clayton takes this valuable lesson so much to heart that he uses what he has learned about storytelling to help him cope with the devastating truth about Gabe's relationship to him and his mother. When he discovers that Gabe is his biological father, Clayton takes the news -- and its implications about his mother's relationship with Gabe -- harder than anyone could have imagined. What's worse? Being a homosexual, or cuckolding your brother? As far as Clayton's concerned, life was better when Gabe was merely a radical homosexual tainted by Yankee mores. Feeling betrayed by Gabe and his mother, Clayton leaves home. The second part of the novel addresses Clay's rejection of and eventual reuniting with his family. Taking the form of a taped journal, it records the almost daily upheaval of Clay's life as he bounces between the homes of various family members. For the next year Clayton is exposed to an eye-opening variety of ways people cope with the events of daily life. A blind date with his brother, Sim, turns into a shocking lesson about love, sex, and personal relationships. The days spent in the tidy home of his hardworking aunt and uncle impress upon Clay the value of responsibility. His wisecracking older sister helps improve his pathetic performance on the baseball field. And the luscious meals his grandmother prepares for him are a lesson in pure nurturing care, Southern style. Each of these people tell him the story of his mother's painful past, and through them he also learns of the enormous gratitude she feels in return. As is true in most families, it takes a crisis to reunite estranged loved ones. For Clayton, Gabe's sudden hospitalization brings forth a flood of painful memories about his father's death, and leads the now 13-year-old young man to return home. Set against the verdant landscape of Northern Florida with its low-hanging moss and down-home feel, The Schooling of Claybird Catts has all the elements of a truly Southern tale: ghosts, family secrets, faded glory and eccentric characters. But its wisdom about growing up will ring true with anyone who, in braving the stormy seas of adolescence, has felt like an outsider at the dinner table. Family, Owens seems to be saying to us, is what you make of it. Wrapped in the colorful, often tattered cloth of other people's love, we may not be sheltered from life's coldest lessons, but we learn them best when we know that the people who love us are doing their best to guide us through the rough spots. Questions for Discussion
- How does Owens differentiate Southern and Northern values? In your own experience, how deep are the cultural differences?
- Before she gives us the facts, what sorts of clues does Owens give us about the secrets of Clayton's family?
- Although a naive and imaginative twelve-year-old could never be considered a reliable narrator, he is a good choice. Why is that? How might the story be different if told through an omniscient narrator, or by another member of the family?
- Does every family have secrets? Do you recall discovering a family secret as an adolescent? How would learning the facts behind some of your family's oddities educate you about the world?
- What kinds of schooling does Clayton receive over the course of the novel? In what ways does he grow and mature?
- Throughout the novel Clayton refers to himself as slow, a label he has assumed because of his dyslexia. Does he seem slow to you? Did your opinion of his intelligence change after the results of his IQ test are made known?
- What is the role of storytelling in this novel? How might a story "rescue" someone, as it does Aunt Candace when she's trying to explain to Clayton how Michael came to accept the truth about Gabe and Myra?
- What kind of mother is Myra? Is she a sympathetic character?
- What do you think of Gabe as a father figure for Clayton?
- Do you think Clayton would have been better off if he never knew the truth about his relationship to Gabe? If not, when do you think would have been the appropriate time to for him to learn the facts?
- What lessons does Clayton learn from his family about love and sex? Do you think he will be able to distinguish between responsible and careless behavior as he grows older?
- The second part of the book takes the form of a tape-recorded journal. What are the effects of the shift in narration from past to present tense?
- What kind of adult do you think Clayton will evolve into? How does distinctive voice and personality contribute to this impression?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
janis owens is one of the great southern writers. a treasure. we all owe it to ourselves to read her books. they're life-affirming and lovely.
Janis Owens has created a beautifully-written, profound novel of one boy's coming-of-age journey in a frequently confusing world. 11-year-old narrator Clayton "Claybird" Catts, shares his own touching story with complete honesty and humor. Set in rural northern Florida, this compelling story begins as Claybird's beloved father, Michael, is dying from cancer. Following his death, Michael's mysterious brother, Gabe, returns home from his exile and eventually marries Claybird's mother. Uncle Gabe advocates for and helps the dyslexic Claybird excel in school, which increases his self-esteem tremendously. Claybird feels betrayed when a family secret is revealed, therefore he moves out of his home. Living with other family members teaches him many of life's lessons and he learns the true meaning of family. Ms. Owens is a brilliant storyteller, who utterly captivated me from the very first page. Her magnificent writing brings the bittersweet story to life, and all the charm and culture of the South is superbly depicted. The characters are extraordinarily vivid and intriguing. She meticulously captures the angst of adolescence and Claybird's speech reflects that of a teenage boy. I absolutely loved this engrossing story and found I could truly identify with these characters in many ways. Abounding with homespun wisdom about family and life, I highly recommend this wonderful novel! "My Brother Michael" and "Myra Sims" are the companion books in the Catts family series.
Janis Owens goes to the heart of teenage vulnerabilities and self doubts in telling the Catts-Sims story from a young boy¿s point of view. That she does this is admirable, that she does it so well is truly miraculous. Claybird¿s painful, self-imposed estrangement from his family eventually heals, through their loving patience and his bittersweet maturation. More than just a coming of age tale, the gentle, honest portrayal of the heartaches and wonders of a dyslexic child provide insight and encouragement of this little understood reading difficulty. Ms. Owens¿ writing style is enchanted and her characters are so real the reader will know them personally, but perhaps that insight and encouragement is the ultimate compliment of this story.
There¿s something about the deep South that calls out for unraveling. What is the hidden mystery? Some people are satisfied to see what they think they see. But not novelist Janis Owens. She brings all the ghosts out from the shadows. She wants the real story. It¿s the real story that we all want because it is only the real that changes our lives and makes us human. And in this wonderfully crafted, sad, funny and romantic book is that look beneath what we think we know that rewards us with a flash of understanding. It¿s all here: wealth, sibling rivalry, incest, family betrayals and falling in love forever, twice. Like the kiss. His mother was supposed to kiss his uncle Gabe for show, for friendly, for ceremonious. But even her eleven-year-old son saw a different and unexpected connection. ¿I actually glanced around the room, wanted to ask someone: What was that? Did you see that?¿ I stayed up until 3AM to finish it.