The year is 1972, and Randy Walls is fresh out of the foster care system. Haunted by memories of sexual abuse, he hitchhikes from Pittsburgh to rural Georgia in search of a blood relation. His quest for family is fulfilled in unexpected ways after he makes a deal with Ben Stempton, a grizzled old pulp-wooder. Through events that follow, Randy experiences culture shock, hard labor, funerals, friendship, extramarital sex, and jealousy.
When old man Stempton dies in a gruesome accident, Randy shoulders the burden of the man’s business for the sake of his wife and daughter. Episodes unfold, and Randy finds himself holding a baby. Little Benji’s mother is Ben Stempton’s daughter, Stacy. Unfortunately, she is married to Randy’s rival, an abusive redneck named Ty. More tragedy follows, resulting in Stacy’s emotional breakdown.
By this time Randy has grown close to his work partner Buster, a light-skinned black youth of uncertain parentage who anchors and guides him. These two plus Benji form an unlikely trio, struggling against vines from the past and present that are as constricting as kudzu—twisted stalks sprouting from society’s soil, Ben Stempton’s grave, and their own personal histories. Breaking free will require drastic measures and the formation of new bonds rooted in love.
My Thoughts About Ben Stempton’s Boy
I received a copy of Ron Yates’ Ben Stempton’s Boy and am grateful I had the chance to read it! The book held me captive, grabbing my full attention in the way only a brilliant novel can. I started it and did little else until I finished it.
Randy is a boy who, as Yates phrases, “graduated from foster care.” In the first few pages, you already feel bad for the boy. He hitchhiked to meet his only living relative, who died before he could get to meet him. Back on the side of the road, Randy gets lucky when he gets a ride from Ben Stempton. Soon the reader finds out the who, what, where, and when of Randy.
In the same car ride, Ben offers Randy a job as a pulp wooder. Ben reveals that he recently lost a son and needs someone to fill the position. The metaphor of Ben looking for a son is incredibly heart-warming. To see Ben open his home to a young stranger shows the empathy he has without telling. There is a lot of “show don’t tell” throughout the book—a key element to a well-written story.
The detailed descriptions of the characters, along with the “yessirs” and “reckon” use of language, are fantastic. They are sprinkled into the dialogue just enough where you know you’re in Georgia, but it’s not overwhelming. The same goes for the 1970s era the book is set in. If you’re a reader who was not alive then, you clearly see what places, people, and type of work ethic were the norm then.
Yates then introduces you to Stacy, Ben’s free-spirited daughter. Randy falls for her, and as they say, one thing leads to another. Stacy becomes pregnant and has a nervous breakdown, complicating things further. Stacy is so believable for what a woman was like in the 70s; progressive, curious, and manipulative. Unlike the stereotype male fleeing from a baby, it is Stacy who leaves Randy with their love-child.
As Randy knows what it is like to be “abandoned” by parents, he takes the baby with him when he decides it is time to move on. This time, he takes his friend Buster who he met through his work as a pulp wooder. Buster is an excellent element of the story. A black man, in the south, befriending a white man and joining him on a trip up north. Again, this could be a cliche having the novel occur in the 70s, but Yates finds a way to make it seem normal.
Ben Tempton’s Boy is original, really different, the lead character was believable and likable, and the story swept me along. I won’t rehash the story here, I don’t want to spoil the book. It also made a refreshing change to read a book narrated by the same character throughout without jumping back and forth between time zones, which seems to be the trend with authors these days. Yates has somehow created aa novel that successfully weaves humor and horror to tell Randy’s story. Well-written, great characters, and is a compelling read.
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