cover image The Boy Orator

The Boy Orator

Tracy Daugherty. Southern Methodist University Press, $19.95 (264pp) ISBN 978-0-87074-433-4

The orator of this detailed historical novel is Harry Shaughnessy, a boy born in Texas just before the turn of the century. Harry's father, Andrew, grooms his son to be an orator and apostle for the coming new age of socialism. By the time Harry is 12, he's traveling far from home, speaking out against the evils of capitalism. Daugherty (What Falls Away) draws from the true-life experiences of his grandfather in creating Harry, and the strengths of the novel rest firmly in the richly evoked prairies and small towns of Oklahoma. Harry watches the flight of ""salmon-colored scissortails,"" sees ""the white blossoms of Chickasaw plums"" and smells ""the woody smell of bluestem mixed with the scent of his mother's lemon meringue."" Even after Harry and his father are beaten by Klansmen in the town of Anadarko, Harry embarks on a speaking tour, meeting some of the most well-known socialists of the day, including Eugene V. Debs and Oscar Ameringer. The First World War effectively halts a large-scale socialist movement, as patriotic fervor sweeps the country and all of Harry's old heroes are silenced or put behind bars. Daugherty skillfully weaves history into his presentation of the early 20th century's dramatic political landscape. Infusing his characters with the same compelling energy and revolutionary spirit proves more difficult, however: readers may interpret young Harry's commitment to socialism as a pliant child's obedience to his father's politics. When Harry grows into an idealistic young man, his virtuous stance is admirable, but ultimately the robust descriptions of race relations and early resistance movements are Daugherty's triumph. (Mar.) FYI: Daugherty's work has garnered an NEA grant, an Associated Writing Program Award in the Novel, an Oregon Book Award and a Southwestern Booksellers' Award.