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A Hill of Beans
by Bennett G. Edwards
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Rating:
Reviewed by: John Walsh

Born in the pungently named and now redeveloped neighborhood of Black Bottom in Detroit, talented young black man (his color is important to the story and, indeed, central) Bennett G. Edwards is able to escape and make a lengthy and varied career for himself. He has some help along the way, of course: his father was well-established and was able to buy apartments for cash. He drove little Bennett to baseball games in his own car, buying him hot dogs and so forth - yet he is gone within a few pages, described as a 'cheapskate,' without much evidence. He then disappears and Bennett is brought up by his mother, who appears to be an inadequate woman much taken to self-pity and gambling (the father reappears a little later as a man receiving parental visitation rights and, during one such visit, the author is faced with the horrific sight of his father choking to death in front of him). His childhood is otherwise characterized by violence, abuse, not doing very well in school and his own fumblings with other girls which he calls sexual abuse (or perhaps attempted sexual abuse) and attributes to mimicry of the behavior of neighbors. All of this is recounted in great detail, although it is not clear whether this is the result of a phenomenal memory or having consulted family or friends about the events of the past. The author claims to have a 'photographic mind' (p.15) and perhaps such a memory means it is not necessary to investigate the past in order to recreate it.

Two things save the adolescent Bennett: one is sport, since he grows into a large young man suitable for playing American football; the second is his singing, since he joins various musical groups and proves to be very adept at different styles. Owing to the numerous means of encouraging social mobility in the America of the 1960s (much of which has of course been stamped out by the rise of inequality), Bennett is offered numerous scholarships at different universities on the basis of either sport or music. He eventually opts for the former and is able to forge a successful career, although apparently despite the machinations of various coaches and interlopers rather than with their assistance. At one stage, he is threatened by a particularly unpleasant individual with the cancellation of his scholarship, which would make him eligible for the draft to Vietnam. Within a week, he is struck by depression and is trying to stick a butcher's knife into his own stomach (p.81) in an ultimately unsuccessful bid for suicide. This situation is resolved but in due course he does get the opportunity to serve in the military and visits Korea, where he hangs around the fleshpots of Itaewon and takes advantage of some of the poor sex workers there, unless of course they are taking advantage of him.

Bennett suffers from a deep-seated inferiority complex (p.71), which is not always evident from the narrative, and is nevertheless regularly approached by young women wishing to initiate sexual encounters with him, most of which he rejects out of some sense of religious belief, which waxes and wanes through the course of the book. The author's experiences are very different from mine, of course, although I am aware from the work and thought of Cornel West among others of the importance of religious belief in many poor black communities as a means of generating social capital and sustaining hope for the future. This type of belief appears to be reminiscent of those experiences of the author, who portrays himself as regarding religion as a means of working out how to behave in society and how to be a good and responsible adult. This would also appear to be the case of the various pastors and elders involved: these men are most often consulted about sexual matters, specifically whether he should or should not and their advice is consistently to 'use a rubber.' This suggests that religion in the communities in which the author moves has a normative value rather than being transcendent or offering universal truths that must be obeyed. No doubt there is some variation among the experiences of others in similar situations but, in his memoir, author Edwards focuses primarily on his own progress and we have little information about how other people really relate to the world they inhabit.

After his sports career, Edwards has the opportunity to transition into the academic world - one of the benefits of having been given a scholarship is this chance to recreate oneself in another guise and, thereby, disprove Scott Fitzgerald's dictum that there are no second acts in American life. Despite their travails, the 1960s and 70s and their influence were very positive in American and western society in that society was becoming more unified as those less fortunate were given opportunities to improve themselves, while the more fortunate were obliged to support them through progressive policies and tax regimes. Even so, Edwards seems to find many problems along the way, with different university administrations and academics proving awkward and trying to bend the rules in line with his principal premise that there are many people willing to try to prevent social mobility by being personally unpleasant and insisting that an individual is not worth the eponymous hill of beans. The author proves, notwithstanding the ups and downs of his life and particularly emergent health problems resulting in large part from his earlier sporting career, that it is possible to overcome these difficulties and make a successful life for oneself - readers can make up their own minds which factors are most important in making this possible.

This is in many ways a fascinating memoir - it bears the hallmarks of not having passed through the more rigorous editing process that would have occurred with a larger publisher and there are various homophonous errors and other minor issues which any subsequent edition might see corrected. Bennett Edwards offers an uplifting tale of hope and achievement triumphing over adversity and his message will surely be a valuable one to many generations of readers.


You can learn more at the official website, http://www.ahillofbeans.net.


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