Just finished up the historical fiction novel Dobyns Chronicles, by Shirley McLain, and I feel like I need to speak with a southern cowboy drawl! The writing style just put that accent in my head through the entire story. I found Dobyns Chronicles on Book Club Reading List.
Dobyns Chronicles is the story of Charley Dobyns and his family in the Texas and Oklahoma Territories around 1880-1950. Charley grew up on a ranch and learned early in life the value of hard work. He learned how to take care of the animals and how to store food for the winter. So when the yellow fever took both his parents, 16-year-old Charley was well enough equipped with the skills to take care of his younger brother and sister, aged 10 and 4. We follow Charley as he leads his family through numerous trials. It is a heartwarming story of strength, love, and the lengths to which one will go to take care of family.
Charley is certainly the hero of this book. The author, Shirley McLain, has based this book on her great-grandfather’s life and has even included family photos at the end documenting Charley, his siblings, and all of their children. This real-life connection is what drives this story home to me. Charley is the bedrock of the family; he is strong and reliable. I’m sure that if my parents had died when I was a teenager and I was left responsible for my younger siblings, we would have all died. Or, more likely, been split up to live with relatives or left at the mercy of social services. Charley was so determined to keep what was left of his family together.
“Viola, you carry Ma and Pa inside of you. They will always be there with you. If you listen real close, you can even hear them talking to you. One day, you will even see them again.” (Charley, page 51)
I think this quote sums up the essence of this story. Families are forever; not even death can erase those we love from our lives.
In addition to the copious amount of heart and love, this story also has a fair amount of humor, particularly when we’re not expecting it. Charley, his brother David and sister Viola all refer to each other as ‘brother’ and ‘sister’. They don’t often use contractions in their dialogue, which makes the language feel formal.
“‘Gosh Charley, you sure are smart. I hope when I get as old as you are, I am half as smart as you,’ David said.
Viola just agreed with him. Of course, I was eating it up like honey on bread. I just gave them the sage advice it takes time to learn about things. By the time I got through letting them think how all-knowing I was, we were at the main house.” (page 77)
I love the sibling banter that is written throughout the book. Even
when life deals them trials time and again, they keep each other’s spirits up. Also, there are many, many scenes in which the characters are eating good, hearty farm meals. The descriptions of the food made me hungry!!
I think the biggest weakness was the pace of the story. For all of the exciting things those kids have to deal with, it sure seemed to drag! I think the language style was part of the pacing problem. Stylistically, I see what McLain was trying to do in the dialogue; I definitely had a cowboy drawl in my head as I read the characters; but I think it was overdone to the point where it didn’t feel realistic. For example, there is a scene where they go ice skating with two other children, Thomas and Mila, who fall in the ice. Mila is in the water up to her neck and Thomas is treading water and holding on to her, their teeth are chattering, it’s a dramatic moment. Here’s what Charley says:
“David, run to the house and tell Zack to come and help. Then help Mrs. Selby get warm blankets for the kids. Ask Zack to bring a couple of blankets with him. Run as fast as you can.”
I feel like this isn’t genuine. Anyone in this kind of high-stress situation would be hollering out commands, not slow, polite requests. The kids are freezing! He should be calling out those instructions as he gets to the kids as quick as he can! There should be some exclamation marks!! Right?!? Anyway, maybe that’s just a personal preference.
Overall, I love the heart of this book and the themes of family, hard work, and love. Charley leaves us with these final words, which I think sum up the purpose of life quite nicely:
“This life, with its difficulties, is preparation for the goodness that is to come. I don’t think we would be able to appreciate what the Lord will give us on the other side unless we’ve lived this life with all its trials and tribulations. I know, since I’ve survived, I’m a stronger man. My body may be weaker, but my spirit isn’t.” (pages 247-248)
If you’re in the mood for a good family story and learn a little history, go get yourself a copy of Dobyns Chronicles.
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