Set in the Wisconsin of the 1950s, ROMEY’S PLACE is a sepia-toned story about a summer that would change the lives of two boys forever. Romey Guttner and Lowell Prins (Lobo for short) were an odd couple --- best friends from different sides of the tracks, or, in this case, different sides of God.
Lowell grew up in a churchgoing household, his father and grandfather pillars of the Christian community in Easton, Wisconsin. And he himself embraced the faith of his family, albeit with reservations and sometimes even embarrassment. Romey, on the other hand, is the son of Cyril Guttner, the town's most notorious bully, a man so mean that the fear people feel in his presence is from the unknown. He seems capable of anything.
ROMEY’S PLACE is a study in contrasts between Cyril and Lobo's dad, the lessons these men taught their sons, and the lessons these sons taught each other. The drama of the book centers on mostly youthful hijinks the summer before the two entered high school --- stealing cigarettes, working at picking beams to make pocket money, sneaking into the girl's cabin at camp. This should suggest that drama is a strong word for the slow boil that makes up the vast majority of the book. But looming in the background is a union strike that surges forward with the specter of violence at unexpected moments. The strike is like a political manifestation of Cyril (an agitator in the union) himself --- mercurial, hard to predict and hard to reason with.
The story is told in flashback as a 50-something Lowell helps his dad clean out the house in preparation for downsizing into a retirement home. It's what he doesn't find in a closet, an heirloom bayonet he lost that summer so long ago, that sends him careening down memory lane. It seems fitting then that a large part of what's so lovely about this book is what it lacks. Pretension, for example.
The golden rule of good writing is to show, not tell. Yet author James Calvin Schaap has managed to break this rule to good effect by creating a character in Lowell who does just this --- he keeps reminding us he exists with heavy-handed foreshadowing and telling us the moral of the story --- while still remaining engaging. The pace of the book is slow and feels very much like what it is --- a tale told by a midlife man, young and full enough of the pride of life to still wonder at the drama of his own adolescence, yet old enough to repeat himself. And on this point, it feels true to life. People meander when telling their stories, and they repeat themselves. Lowell might be your dad or brother telling you something he has never talked about before. Reading ROMEY’S PLACE might make you wonder at the shaping experiences that you don't know about that exist in the minds and hearts of your own family members.
Though it's a slow boil, the bubbles do come. A night of violence breaks out that will forever link Romey and Lowell, and make it impossible for them to remain friends. To the end we're confronted with the contrasts --- between the violence that can be wrought by fists and by words, and between the lessons two men inspired. As the older Lowell says, "What my own foolish soul has come to understand is that while my father taught me goodness, it was Romey who taught me grace."
Reviewed by Lisa Ann Cockrel on September 1, 2007