Homer Price, written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey
first published in 1943 by The Viking Press
About two miles outside of Centerburg where route 56 meets route 56A there lives a boy named Homer. Homer’s father owns a tourist camp. Homer’s mother cooks fried chicken and hamburgers in the lunch room and takes care of the tourist cabins while his father takes care of the filling station. Homer does odd jobs about the place. Sometimes he washes windshields of cars to help his father, and sometimes he sweeps out cabins or takes care of the lunch room to help his mother.
Homer Price is the quintessential, dungaree-clad, Midwestern-small-town boy created by Robert McCloskey back in 1943. This book, and its sequel, Centerburg Tales, are the only novels McCloskey wrote, and like his prized picture books, they bottle up for us this era and place, masterfully.
The six stories in this book are humorous, affectionate glimpses of life in a podunk Ohio town in the late 1930s. It’s a moseying, quiet locale where the menfolk hang around the barber shop playing checkers on Saturday nights, and young boys gather around the radio to listen to the college football game. Think Mayberry, from the old Andy Griffith show, and you’ve got it just about right.
Even so, exciting, surprising, convoluted events regularly crop up in Centerburg, and Homer is always in the thick of them. Read about Homer outwitting a gang of robbers with the help of a stinky friend; his discovery of an unheroic superhero; the world famous doughnut machine fiasco; a prize-winning ball of yarn; Michael Murphy’s musical mousetrap; and Centerburg’s town pageant celebrating their 150-year anniversary.
Homer is a swell boy, and McCloskey’s warm, homespun story has aged very nicely. Besides, McCloskey has illustrated it with his brilliant lithographs that pack in nostalgia and folksy charm with every perfect mark. It makes a great read-aloud for a wide age-span, or a comfy independent read for 3rd or 4th graders and up .
That said, the final story in the book, which tells of the Centerburg historical pageant, contains some unfortunate racial stereotyping that’s fairly common in this era of literature. Homer and his buddies play the part of Indians in the pageant, meaning they are “striped with mercurochrome and draped with towels around their middles.” It’s a performance which, among other things, includes a “scalping scene,” the Indians’ growing addiction to a home brew invented by the town’s founding father, and an Indian uprising which, once quelled, results in “peace and prosperity.” In addition, the Black members of town are essentially reduced to being background singers in the African Baptist Choir. To me, it’s an uncomfortable chapter.
There are many treasured books from the past which are long on merits, yet have subtle or glaring streaks of racism, sexism, or ethnocentrism. Do we abandon these books? I understand it may seem naive for me, a non-minority, to give an opinion. Yet for gems such as Homer Price, I do still recommend them. Then, we talk together about the hurtful attitudes and speech they contain, acknowledge the problems, rather than pretend they don’t exist, and recognize how much offense we can give, even without being aware of it. Conversations like this might also lead us to search for another book that gives a voice to lesser-heard people.
Homer Price is a delightful, memorable, slice-of-Americana story, and a great choice for young boys. If you like it, you’re sure to like the Henry Huggins series by Beverly Cleary as well, or for slightly older readers, the Henry Reed books by Keith Robertson, more classic characters too often neglected by today’s readers.