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Likely Stories: Searching for Caleb

Jim McKeown

Pulitzer Prize-winning author offers an early novel of an eccentric family.

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Anne Tyler was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1941 and grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina.  She has written eleven novels, and Breathing Lessons won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.  Most of her novels detail the lives of slightly dysfunctional families, but she does so with a dry and subtle wit.

Her 1975 novel, Searching for Caleb, opens with a somewhat dreary portrait of the Peck Family.  The patriarch, Daniel Peck, inherited a rather exhausting array of rules governing his clan.  The least peculiar of which involved “bread and butter” notes to be written immediately upon concluding a visit.  The notes followed a specific formula, and Daniel required mailing at the first post office spotted.  He did not trust corner mail boxes when they changed from Army green to red and blue.

The story revolves around Daniel, Justine, her husband, Duncan, their child Meg, and Caleb, who completely disappeared in 1912.  As Daniel aged, he clung to a single, odd photo of Caleb. 

Justine and Duncan were the next to break away from this restrictive family circle.  Justine reluctantly left with Duncan to start a goat farm.  As Duncan became bored with this project, he suddenly changed to chickens, then antiques.  Tyler describes the young couple’s arrival at their new house.  She writes, “‘Look! Someone left a pair of pliers,’ she said.  ‘And here’s a chair we can use for the porch.’  She was a pack rat; all of them were.  It was a family trait.  You could tell that in a flash when they started carrying things in from the truck – the bales of ancient, curly-edged magazines, zipper bags bursting with unfashionable clothes, cardboard boxes marked Clippings, Used Wrapping Paper, Photos, Empty Bottles.  Duncan and Justine staggered into the grandfather’s room carrying a steel filing cabinet from his old office, stuffed with carbon copies of all his personal correspondence for the twenty-three years since his retirement.  In one corner of their own room, Duncan stacked crates of machine parts and nameless metal objects picked up on walks, which he might someday want to use for some invention” (31).

On a visit to Meg’s home – shared with her mother-in-law, Mrs. Milson – Justine is given a glass of sweetened tea, despite the fact Meg asked the elderly woman to her mother fix her some without sugar.  The excruciatingly polite Justine, sips the tea without complaint.  Tyler writes, “Justine chose that moment to reach toward the green glass shoe on the coffee table – sourballs! Right under her nose! – and chose a lemony yellow globe and pop it into her mouth, where she instantly discovered she had eaten a marble.  While everyone watched in silence, she plucked it out delicately between thumb and forefinger and replaced it, only a little shinier than before, in the green glass shoe.  ‘I thought we could have used more rain,’ she told the ring of faces” (227).

Anne Tyler’s Searching for Caleb is a lot of fun.  She expertly handles all the peculiarities and foibles one can imagine in an overly eccentric family.  Try any of her novels, and you will be as hooked as I am.  5 stars.

Life-long voracious reader, Jim McKeown, is an English Instructor at McLennan Community College. His "Likely Stories" book review can be heard every Thursday on KWBU-FM! Reviews include fiction, biographies, poetry and non-fiction. Join us for Likely Stories every Thursday featured during Morning Edition and All Things Considered with encore airings Saturday and Sunday during Weekend Edition.