Distant Son//An Alabama Boyhood by Norman McMillan


Two central Alabama counties, Hale and Tuscaloosa, provide the setting for Distant Son, the absorbing story of a young boy struggling, during the forties and fifties, to define himself in a world of poverty and deprivation.


Norman McMillan was the eighth of ten children. His forceful mother Lucille was greatly ambitious for her children, and his feckless father Albert never knew how to capitalize on his advantages. During much of young McMillan’s first eighteen years, his family sharecropped, living in a series of rough, unpainted houses and struggling to claw out a meager living by truck farming.


Despite the deprivation the family faced, they seldom dwelled on their straitened circumstances. Lucille preached a strange sort of noblesse oblige based on ancestral pride. Because their riches of birth and ability were far greater than mere material possessions, Lucille taught her children to think of themselves as superior to many people who were better off economically. Any deprivation they experienced was temporary and would only serve to strengthen and toughen their character. It was, she assumed, their birthright to succeed and prevail. Meanwhile, Albert, whose family provided the illustrious ancestors held up as models, drank up his meager money, sold off his property, and, as the years passed, withdrew more and more from the world.


Both comical and moving, Distant Son tells the story of these parents and their children as well as their relatives and neighbors. It depicts with rich and lively detail a life that was largely fading in the boom years of the 1940s and 1950s, but a world in which many people still found themselves. Without self-pity, the memoir celebrates the human spirit and its triumphant power to transcend temporary circumstances.


Norman McMillan is co-author of Three Generations of Warriors: The Argonne Forest, The Flying Tigers, and the Skies of Vietnam and was the recipient of the Eugene Current-Garcia Award for Alabama’s Distinguished Literary Scholar.


“Norman McMillan’s great memoir is in the high tradition of Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’ and Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood. McMillan had one shining moment which makes his memoir the most Southern I have ever read. When the family mule died, his father hitched Norman and his brother up to the jo harrow and finished plowing the field. This now stands as my favorite moment in Southern literature.” — Pat Conroy, author of The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides


“Norman McMillan charms us with this coming-of-age story of a son devoted to an ardent, ambitious mother, a woman who rises to the challenge of poverty and the shame of her husband’s defeat, who shakes up the world of rural Alabama with her progressive ideas about race and education. As an imaginative son, McMillan moves with grace through the difficult world of childhood, and thanks to his sister Evelyn, sees beyond that world to the broader frontiers of adulthood.”— Patricia Foster, author of All the Lost Girls


“Norman McMillan’s Distant Son tells of coming of age mostly in Hale County and then near Tuscaloosa in clear-eyed prose that is witty, poignant, and sometimes hysterically bawdy. Thanks to booze, the Depression, and ten children in a row, the McMillans fell on hard times and ended up sharecropping from place to place. They knew one thing, though: they wanted those children educated and they’d do anything to see to it–sell anything, go anywhere, beg, borrow, and work like the Devil. In the end, Distant Son is a tragicomedy that tells of a world that seems both far away and right next door.” — Judith Hillman Paterson, author of Sweet Mystery


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