A Review of Lee Martin’s Gone the Hard Road
June 30, 2021 § Leave a comment
By Debbie Hagan
On November 3, 1956, author Lee Martin was just a toddler when a farm accident changed his family forever. His father, Roy Martin, had been harvesting corn in the fields, near Sumner, Illinois, when the shucking box clogged. Instead of shutting off the machine, he reached in to loosen the obstruction. This split-second error took both of his hands, and he’d live the rest of his life with steel hooks.
A father with hooks cannot play games, cannot throw a baseball, cannot toss his son into the creek. He cannot reach up on the dime store shelf and pull down the tent that his son cries to have. When the store attendant brings it down, the father cannot open his wallet and pay for it. His wife, Beulah, has to do that. When his son needs tenderness, a father with hooks cannot stroke his son’s hair or place a warm hand on his back.
“At first I didn’t know enough to understand how his accident had put a barrier between the two of us, but I know it now,” Lee Martin writes. In his first memoir From Our House, Martin tells about the accident and how it changed his father from a “friendly sort,” as his uncle would describe, to a bitter and angry man.
As Martin grew up, he and his father would physically fight, while his mother, Beulah, looked on and begged them to stop. In the aftermath, she would remind her son, “Your father loves you and you love him. You wouldn’t get so angry with each other if you didn’t.”
Gone the Hard Road is a follow-up to his first memoir, told in thirteen connected essays. It focuses on his mother, a compassionate woman, who, in spite of her family’s hardships, remains positive and optimistic. She encourages Martin to look on the bright side, “count your blessings,” and “think of everything good in your life.”
Being a school teacher, she knows literature can build character, expand a child’s imagination, open up alternate worlds, and change a child’s life. Like many parents in the 1960s, Beulah enrolls her son in a book club. New titles such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Penrod and Sam, The Prince and the Pauper, and At the Back of the North Wind, arrive every month.
Once time, when Martin is left alone in the cab of his father’s truck, he finds his latest book club selection tucked under the front seat. He puzzles, then realizes his father had slid it out of sight, so he could send it back before he’d even seen it. The boy rips open the package and finds Captain Courageous.
When his father returns, he’s angry and calls his son a snoop. This makes Martin cry, whereupon his father warns, he’ll give him “something to cry about.”
Once they’re home, though, Beulah, in her gentle way, reminds the father that the book belongs to Martin. Thus, Captain Courageous stays and young Martin is spared another belt lashing.
Maybe everyone reading Lee Martin feels the way I do. His stories are so human, so truthful, they could easily be about me.
My father was a hot-tempered man, who argued and fought with me for reasons I’ll never fully understand. Like Beulah, my mother loved books, and taught me to sit down, be quiet, find a book, and set my troubles free.
I can’t count the number of times books saved me. I could travel to the Wild West…to the jungles of Africa…to the Bronx Zoo…to galaxies light years away. As long as I had a book, I could go anywhere, be anyone. As I approached high school, I began reading stories that weren’t just adventures and fantasies, but stories in which authors drew upon their own lives, such as Emily Dickinson, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pearl S. Buck, John Steinbeck, and others. I wanted to be them…travel far…see the world.
Martin’s title, Gone the Hard Road, is an idiom referring to choosing the more difficult path in hopes of achieving a better result, which, of course, reflects Martin’s own journey. However, the phrase in southeastern Illinois, can also be used to describe someone who leaves the rural gravel path and hits the hard asphalt going into town…or the city. Martin’s mother had prepared him to hit the hard road to college and onto life as a writer, storyteller, and educator.
“No matter how far I’ve come from the country kid I was,” writes Martin, “I can never forget the family we were: my kind mother, who loved books; my wounded father, whose intense love often got swallowed up inside his rage; and me, the only child, eager to escape my life and to immerse myself in someone else’s story.”
In Gone the Hard Road, Martin tells his story of growing up in rural Illinois with great passion, love, and undying hope.
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Critical Read, River Teeth, Superstition Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.