In the 1930's American South, Boy Sword and his family move to the tiny farming community of Bugscuffle Bottoms, where his father eagerly anticipates becoming a sharecropper. The Swords struggle through mishaps and hard times, but through it all their closeness keeps them together. Boy's father had never given him a name, because he had hated his own. Boy's lack of a name leads to teasing from and fights with other kids, but twelve-year-old Boy learns and grows from the day-to-day adversities of life as he searches for his true name.
The Least One is a heartwarming family drama and coming of age story that takes place in a tiny farming community with the inauspicious name of Bugscuffle Bottoms in the post-Depression era American South. It paints a vivid portrait of the hardscrabble life of sharecroppers during that time, and is told from the first-person perspective of a twelve-year-old boy who doesn't have a name other than Boy. I don't know that I've ever read a historical story that takes place in the 1930's, so that alone was pretty interesting. As I read the book, I was struck by how realistic everything seemed, almost as though it was a memoir instead of fiction. I was quite surprised to discover in the author's bio at the end that, while he categorized the story as fictional, it was based in part on real events in his life.
I really liked all the Swords. They were a loving family who looked out for each other with the parents being stern but knowing how to teach difficult life lessons in a gentler way. They were also hard-working with each member of the family pulling their own weight and doing what needed to be done in order to survive. Boy's father, Lee, was a good man who had fallen on hard times, but was determined to pull himself up by his bootstraps and provide for his family. Boy's mother, Jimmie, could be rather difficult and never truly liked Bugscuffle Bottoms, but it was obvious that she cared deeply for her family and would do whatever it took to ensure their wellbeing. I also admired her pluckiness especially when she went to their landlord with a business proposition, when that was normally a man's place, and was determined not to leave without cutting a deal. Boy's older brother, John, was a taciturn young man with an underlying warmth about him. He really stepped up to the plate to be the man of the house when their father was injured and unable to work.
Boy is pretty much like most twelve-year-old boys. He's very curious, intelligent, playful and talkative. He also has a deep love of books and a tendency to be a bit of dreamer. Sometimes, he makes careless decisions without thinking, which lead to disastrous consequences, but I found it easy to forgive him because he always seemed to glean some very important lessons from his actions. He also learns many things from simply living life. I enjoyed following along on his journey to finding a name for himself. His father had refused to name his sons when they were born, because he himself had been saddled with a name he hated and went by his middle name. Instead he was waiting for his sons to pick their own names. A stubborn battle of wills ensues between Boy and his father over the naming issue. I could definitely relate to Boy's frustration over his father not giving him a name like other kids, and although I haven't run across anyone in real-life who has refused to name their kids, at least Lee's reasons made some sense to me. The whole wanting of a name is the running theme throughout the book, so I was a little disappointed by how that wrapped up. Still, once I read the author's note at the end, I understood why he wrote it the way he did even if I might have wished for it to end otherwise.
Overall, The Least One was a surprisingly enjoyable read that embodied the warmth of a family unit and the wry humor that sometimes ensues from that closeness. In addition to giving the impression of a memoir it also had the feel of a young adult novel, because of being told by a boy. It would definitely be appropriate for teens as there is little objectionable material in it other than a few mild profanities and a couple of minor, veiled sexual references. It might appeal to fans of books such as Tom Sawyer, the Little House on the Prairie series, or Bridge to Terabithia. I could see some similarities between these stories and The Least One, but at its heart this novel is just a nice, feel-good, coming-of-age story that was a very pleasant read. I read the abridged version found in the Reader's Digest Condensed Books - Vol. III, 1967 anthology, and I have to say that the editors did a good job with this one, as it flowed quite well and I never really felt like anything was missing.
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