A Review of J.D. Massey’s 13,712: A Journey
October 9, 2020 § 3 Comments
By Cara Siera
I’ve heard it said that every middle-grade girl has a “horse phase.” Whether that generality is true or not, I know that I certainly did. I grew up on five acres in the rolling hills of Tennessee. My dressing table was covered in model horses, my bookshelf full of titles like The Black Stallion. At fourteen I learned how to work, mucking stalls and tending horses and sheep on a neighboring farm. Often, I was up before daybreak to complete my chores before school or out at the barn in the middle of the night, having come home late from weeknight religious services.
One afternoon, my equestrian employer asked me to pay her a visit outside of my normal working hours, and portentously commanded, “Bring your walking shoes.” We trekked across the pasture, over a grassy knoll that gave way to a deep valley.
There, alongside Cocoa, the brown quarter horse mare, stood a knobby-kneed foal. “She’s yours,” my employer crooned.
It’s that type of speechless elation that drives 13,712: A Journey. In his debut work, J.D. Massey provides a warm and intimate invitation, in a rambling rural style, to witness some of life’s wonders: the birth of a foal, new heads of grain emerging from the soil, and taking into his arms a long-awaited son.
But, alas, these moments of ecstasy are but commas amid life’s sentences. The journey, despite its joys, is rife with tragic human challenges—the death of a parent, debilitating mental illness, a first love suffering from addiction, family strife, an unwanted abortion, the inability to conceive a child, and the long road to successful in vitro fertilization.
These latter aspects distinguish 13,712 as offering unique insights. In 2019, one BBC news article described the perspective of would-be fathers as “a voice rarely heard among the passionate multitudes in the U.S. abortion debate.”
But the presentation in 13,712 would hardly register as debate in the general sense of the word. Never do the pages seem to brashly declare that the reader must take one position or the other. Rather, it is as if the author is saying, “This is what happened, and this is how it made me feel. Make your own moral judgment.”
13,712: A Journey is deeply, yet subtly, grounded in time and place. Mentions of events like the death of Elvis Presley, the release of a classic Gordon Lightfoot ballad, or a 60 Minutes television interview with abortion provider Dr. Susan Wicklund anchor the narrative, linking it to the reader’s own experiences. Where were you when 9/11 happened? That’s the kind of flashbulb memory we can all relate to.
And, although I wish to leave you to experience the surprise of it, a summary of 13,712: A Journey would not be complete without a mention of its vacant pages. These empty pages do not occur at the book’s frontmatter or backmatter, nor are they a printing error. Rather, it is an invitation.
Even when a nonfiction writer is willing to lay bare his or her soul in bitter ink and brittle paper, some words are just too painful to pen. Yet the author told me via email, “It struck me yesterday that there will be people, none of whom I will ever meet, that will use those blank pages to write their own story or at the very least fill it in with their own thoughts.”
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect is that the story continues. The book’s cover image is an actual snapshot of a farmer-father watching his ten-year-old son follow in his footsteps, making his first solo round on the combine. His joy at this momentous event was tempered by the reality that the beautiful-looking crop itself had been irreparably damaged by weather and that its value was depleted by half.
That setback gave Massey the final push to pen and publish 13,712: A Journey. Massey chose a print on demand publishing option rather than waiting on the mercurial moods of the traditional publishing house. Why? It is an attempt to save the beloved farm he writes about. American farmers have seen a number of lean years. Since the book was published in February of this year, 2020 has further burdened the agricultural breadbasket with economic downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic and devastating weather events.
So, Massey writes on. His forthcoming collection of short stories, entitled Daddy, Tell Us a Story, is set for publication later in 2020.
Cara Siera is a freelance writer and photographer. She is the author of Life Is Stranger at Worthington High and Captivated. Her work has appeared in The Red Mud Review, Fearsome Critters: A Millennial Arts Journal, and elsewhere.