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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & Owner
Ray Rasmussen, General Editor

Volume 13, Number 1, March 2019
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Terri L. French, Keepers: A Book of Haibun, A Review by Tony Beyer

Terri L. French, Keepers: A Book of Haibun, with Illustrations by Paresh Tiwari, Huntsville, Alabama, USA, 2018, 40pp, ISBN 1979771049; ISBN-13 978-1979771047.

Two almost diametrically separate literary traditions are successfully brought together in this attractive book. We are used to haibun prose in the guise of travel writing, personal memoir, the record of an experience or relationship, or philosophical meditation, but here the mode is unarguably fiction.

Keepers consists of a sequence of first-person narratives spoken by an imaginary character, the 11-year-old boy, Jared Travis Blankenship, or JT. His is an immemorial New World tale of childhood and its learnings, reminiscent, of course, of Huckleberry Finn.

The second, most significant stylistic inclusion is that of haiku/senryu, punctuating the narrative and widening the very local, individual events of JT’s life into a more universal perspective. While the voice of the prose is authentically regional and colloquial, these powerful verse summations highlight a very sophisticated talent for juxtaposition on Terri French’s part. Such linguistic versatility is to her advantage.

Typically, JT’s activities include fishing, school, friendship, kite-flying, church (where he is a somewhat reluctant attendee), family life and a dog. His misbehaviours – when he is caught – seem to instil in him immediate shame but little in the way of long-term remorse. His vernacular is fluent and regional, as in “at the Ebenezer Baptist Church we only got six deadly sins and gluttony ain’t one of ’em” (‘One-a-month-potluck-covered-dish supper’). These aspects of JT’s personality are a source of much rich humour throughout the text. There is also an undercurrent of crassness – the equivalent of slugs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails – which is similarly authentic.

A further dimension is added to the stories by the author herself having experienced boyhood only at a remove as the mother of two sons. She handles her role with delightful subtlety, leaving JT’s naivety to speak for itself and the haiku/senryu insertions to provide contrast. A telling instance occurs in "Home is Where Your Dirt Is", reconciling a house-proud mother’s “huffs and puffs and mumbles” with:

early Spring
a bit of tinsel
in the sparrow’s nest

How that shiny, apparently irrelevant “bit” of nothing radiates!

I’m sure this book will appeal to many readers for its honesty, truth to life as we live it and effective writing. If there is sentimentality at times, as in the title vignette, that’s part of the Mark Twain tradition, too. Keepers rewards careful attention to the sum of its diverse parts. Good yarns, a memorably rascally raconteur and highly refined poetry all add up to a seriously impressive intelligence at work. Paresh Tawari’s engaging black-and-white illustrations enhance the satisfaction of having spent time with JT and his biographer.

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