By Joan Baum
What’s unusual about 46-year-old Simon Van Booy’s award-winning work is his range: short stories, novels, essays, children’s literature, poetry, editing philosophy books — a wide exploration, in different genres, of the sad beauty and beautiful sadness of the human condition. Even his biography shows unexpected diversity. Born in London, raised in rural Wales and the Oxford countryside, Van Booy was offered a scholarship to play rugby at a Baptist-oriented university in Kentucky, where he lived for several years. A short Author’s Note
at the beginning of “Night Came with Many Stars,” his new novel, is significant: “This work would not have been possible without the love, friendship, and family stories entrusted to me over three decades by the members of one family from rural Kentucky.”
In time, Van Booy wound up in the Creative Writing and Literature Program at Stony Brook Southampton College where he earned an MFA, wrote for local and national media and began acquiring a reputation as an author of uncommon — never repetitive — talent. Like so much of his fiction, this new novel surprises with its style and setting. In a brief acknowledgments at the end Van Booy cites inspiration from children’s book writer William Steig’s “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble” which furnished the title, and T.S. Eliot’s abstruse, spiritually meditative “Four Quartets” which suggested the theme, as enunciated by Carol, the book’s leading character: “You just don’t realize when you’re young that ever’thing is going to be taken away from you, and you’ll be back where you started… except you understand it for the first time…” A book cover with a dreamy sepia-toned re-imagined vintage photo studded with phosphorescent lights by photographic artist Amy Friend also testifies to Van Booy’s expansive artistic reach.
It’s the novel’s unmistakable though unstated timeliness, however, that may prove most memorable. Set in hardscrabble Kentucky and covering four generations, starting in 1933 and ending in 2010, the novel implicitly is a comment on racial attitudes in rural America. Though anti-minority hostility tends to be ascribed to undereducated, poor, working-class country people living on the margins of society, “Night Came With Many Stars” provides a different — and instructive — take. Blacks, Cherokees, indeterminate half-bloods in the novel, especially in the years before civil rights legislation, knew their limits in law, but some also knew how to work the system or how to get on with white neighbors, who shared their plight.
What Van Booy himself observed in one Kentucky family and what he presents in this, his fourth novel, is an American tale about hardship, endurance, trust and love that’s not often told about the region. For sure, the novel is full of acts of violence, cruelty, indifference, but the focus is on a family that carries on because of innate humanity and the good will of strangers. Carol, the subject of the opening and closing chapters, is a lonely, terrified child in 1933, barely alive because of hunger and her father’s brutality. Her beloved mother died early and Carol tends to escape to a forest when she can, until one day when her drunken father gives her over to a poker buddy in payment for a debt. The man rapes her and she comes close to drowning herself, then runs away. On the road, she is picked up by a sympathetic older man (from the poker game). He tells her that he lives by a creed: what she gives in this world will be given back to her. “And what you take will be taken from you.”
The man who befriends Carol takes her to live and work for two women who run an abortion clinic (it’s successful because they cater to the rich and powerful who trust their expertise and discretion). The women are firm but kind and provide Carol with a home for herself and for Rusty, the developmentally disabled child to whom she gave birth. The role of abortion in this impoverished backwater is just another Van Booy surprise.
Jump to 1987 when readers meet Samuel and his mother Alfrieda and Samuel’s best friend Eddie, a volatile Cherokee always in trouble but welcomed by Samuel’s white middle-class family. And then, just like that, Van Booy makes mention of “Grandma Carol” and “Uncle Rusty.” Something extraordinary has happened since the 1930s. Something authentic, heartwarming, personal, regional… and universal.