I can remember my parents telling me stories about what New York City was like when they were growing up. It was a place seemingly alien to me. My mother talked about hanging out near the railroad tracks with other kids where they would start fires and roast potatoes (likely stolen) until they saw the “local dick” coming and they’d all take off running. Things like lining in a cold-water flat were unknown to me. I suppose one day, the same will be true when my grandchildren listen to my stories Rabbit-ear antennas? Black & white television? Living without a microwave? Having a car without air conditioning? That’s like a completely different world to them.
In An Hour Before Daylight, former President Jimmy Carter reminisces about growing up in rural Georgia. Specifically, it’s about the successful farm his father owned and his own role in it growing up. Jimmy was out there with his father every day with chores he was responsible for. In this day and age, it’s an anomaly to see children working at a young age. I imagine it’s still done on some farms, however, the mechanization of everything and the use of heavy equipment have changed what they can do on the farm.
Reading this, I enjoyed the stories. I live in a rural area now, but I grew up mostly in suburbia. From my reading of the Little House books, I know children were expected to help (that was one of the reasons people had children, and particularly why sons were desired) but the extent to which a child was given independent responsibility surprised me. This was also a time when sharecropping still prevailed in the South. Although Carter’s father was fairer than most, it was still his land and the people who lived and worked along with the Carter family often struggled to survive.
Folks never considered that the real tragedy of Reconstruction was its failure to establish social justice for the former slaves.
At the same time, as a child, Jimmy spent a lot of time with these people and came to admire them. Many times he would eat with them and get to experience families different from his own. He didn’t really understand the implications of separate but equal, but just accepted that this was the way things were. His friends were children of those black families living on the land, and if they had the opportunity to go see a film, they couldn’t sit together in the theater but would join up again when they came out after the film. This sows the seeds for later in life when Carter would challenge the status quo and the Jim Crow laws.
Carter tells the story of Depression-Era rural Georgia in remarkable detail. There was no running water, electricity, or indoor plumbing initially in the home. I would have thought it was a horrible time to be a farmer, but Carter finds much joy in the way he was brought up. Things were simpler. The life he led of working on the farm, attending school, and having independence a child of this age could never have is remarkable. I can’t imagine even when I was growing up just taking off to camp out with my friends and fish overnight with no adult supervision. Yet, the boys would do that and return home just fine.
While reading this, I could see how this all influenced Carter the adult. He saw his neighbors as his equals, even if the times didn’t. He describes town life and the dynamics that took place among the different families and their members. His mother was a nurse and worked at the hospital or privately, so there was a bit more respect (and money) for the family there. It also gave them connections to other people in town. People would often call on his mother to help when they became sick. Everyone knew each other and if Jimmy got out of line anywhere, his father or mother would hear about it.
The only thing I can say that seemed to be missing were details about the family itself. It seems like Jimmy only saw his two younger sisters, Gloria and Ruth, when they walked to school together or rode the bus, and at night at dinner. It seems their life was confined to inside the house, while Jimmy was busy with learning to operate the farm with his father. There doesn’t seem to have been very emotional attachment between the men. James Earl Carter Sr. was a good father and a good provider, but it sounds by all accounts like he was emotionally unavailable.
The size of farms has grown tremendously, and racial prejudice in both private and federal lending agencies has channeled the limited capital available for heavy equipment and expansion to white farmers. Black land-ownership has decreased rapidly, in proportion to the increase in average size of farms.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading An Hour Before Daylight. There’s no real story here. It’s simply Carter’s memories from growing up. He’s such a terrific writer, though, that it was a very enjoyable read. I recommend it, no matter your political persuasion.
Categories: Book Reviews