Memoirs of a remote childhood tend to be either idyllic or pockmarked with trauma. In his new autobiography, The Growing Seasons: An American Boyhood Before the War, Samuel Hynes' often lyrical recollections lie somewhere between. The period Hynes chronicles is from 1924, when he was born in Chicago, until his induction into the Navy in 1943. His mother died when he was five, but his stepmother was kind, cheerful and attentive. His father was financially ruined in the Depression, yet the family, while living frugally, never lacked the necessities. Most of the action takes place in Minneapolis, although the author presents a charming chapter on the summer he and his brother spent on a farm while their father was getting family affairs in order.
Now retired from Princeton University, where he was a professor of literature, Hynes author of a previous memoir, the much-praised Flights of Passage invests his book with academic exactitude. He recalls or has researched for the reader's benefit the precise names of classmates, neighborhood streets and stores, household products, the arrangement and furnishings of rooms and even the broadcast times of his favorite radio shows. He remembers recipes and "wise sayings" and the character of particularly brutal snowstorms.
Buttressing this factual precision are family pictures and reproductions of newspaper photos and headlines. Reading Hynes' accounts of strikes, placid summer amusements and local murders is like paging through the musty black-and-white pages of old Life magazines. His book is as valuable for the local history it preserves as for the personal insights it reveals.
The Depression endowed Hynes with an economic outlook that will seem strange to those who are accustomed to maxing out their credit cards. "Spending isn't a gift you're born with," he says, "you have to learn how to be extravagant. On my birthday, one of those kid years, I was given two dollars and told to buy a toy. I walked all the way to the Sears store on Lake Street and spent an hour or more moving slowly along the counters of the toy department, looking at every single thing there. I didn't want any of them. . . . But I was supposed to spend my two dollars and so finally, desperately, I bought a Detective Set . . . and walked the long walk home crying, because I had spent my money for something I didn't want and didn't need."Another element younger readers may find quaint but which will be instantly recognizable to older ones is Hynes' slow and circuitous introduction to the joys of sex from listening to deliciously misinformed playground chatter and peeking through a neighbor girl's window to the inevitable letdown of first consummation. Hynes is at his best when he moves from description to emotional substance, as he does here in relaying how he felt after his stepmother gave away the train set she thought he'd outgrown. "I felt my loss bitterly. It wasn't grief, exactly. [It was] more like what you feel when a favorite thing is smashed, or swept away by a stream, or dropped from a moving car onto a highway. . . . Something that was yours is gone forever; and if that can happen, if this thing you treasured can be taken away from you, then everything can." In our need to reverse such losses, we write memoirs. Or read them.