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Paul A. Broome
Clouds Float South
CLOUDS FLOAT SOUTH is a volume of ten linked stories that chronicle the span of thirty years in the world of the Smith family, four children and their mother. Alan Smith, the third born child, narrates each story. The initial story, told by seven year old Alan, centers on the untimely death of the family patriarch in the mid-fifties, and the final story takes place in the early seventies, when Alan is twenty-three years old. The volume as a whole depicts various triumphs and failures of a mid-twentieth century, working class southern family, while touching upon larger issues such as motherhood, race, war, and education.
Broome (Girls Who Don't Believe) thoughtfully binds together ten short fictions with a shared protagonist and a strong sense of bewilderment at life for all its joys and heartaches. Each of the interlinked stories can stand on its own, but joined together they build into a profound and tender coming-of-age story of a boy from a southern family in the mid-twentieth century. Readers first meet young Alan Smith in “The Sassafras Tree,” as his family is caught in its darkest hour upon discovering the sudden death of his father, and will part from him in “The Smith Family,” when Alan returns to his hometown of Nashville to earn his master’s degree in English, after an unhappy time in his first adult job.

The cumulative nature of the narrative serves to highlight the character of the Smiths and the aftermath of their actions–the battle of wills between Alan's headstrong mother and the school bus driver in “The School Bus: Part One” reverberates in a follow-up, where Alan and his older siblings still face repercussions. In particular, it serves to map Alan’s changes, developments, and reversions. Though early story “The Kiss,” find Alan struggling to understand his white mother’s anger over the fact that he and a Black girl kissed while playing house, later stories, like “The Gravel Pit,” show him succumbing to prejudices himself, and “The Real World” demonstrates such a drastic shift in him that he, himself, is alarmed.

Broome turns everyday dramas–like the return of a neighbor from Vietnam in “Walter Lee,” a school scandal before a big football match in “The Big Game”–into case studies of the ties that connect people–and divide us. Balancing those heavy subjects is Broome’s incisive, inviting prose and Alan's blend of incredulity and youthful acceptance of those around him. That makes this an engaging read offering an undiluted reflection on life.

Takeaway: A sharp but warm examination of human nature through stories of a southern boy coming of age.

Great for fans of: Lewis Nordan’s Music of the Swamp, Chris Offut.

Production grades
Cover: B+
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: A