The Origin of The Charlatan’s Boy

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The other day my sister, a teacher, was trying to help a student fill out some form or other. The form asked for Date of Birth. The girl knew her birthday, but the idea of a birth date, a specific day of a specific year, had her baffled. “The day you were born,” my sister said, a little exasperated, “what year was that?”

The little girl was exasperated herself. She gave my sister a squint and, teeth clenched, said, “A little baby don’t know what year it is.”

When I sat down to write The Charlatan’s Boy, the first sentence I wrote turned out to be the first sentence of the finished product: “I don’t remember one thing about the day I was born.” Grady, the narrator, is grappling with the same epistemological dilemma that was troubling my sister’s student. Anything you think you know about your birth, your origins, is something you got second-hand. Somebody has to tell you where you came from and how you got here. Grady’s troubles stem from the fact that the one person he knows who might be able to tell him anything about his origins is a liar and a fraud.

The seed from which The Charlatan’s Boy grew was a story a friend told me some twenty years ago. His grandmother grew up in California to a Scots father and a German mother. She was pretty typical California girl, but there was one unusual thing about her: she dreamed of kangaroos. She had never seen one in her waking life. There were no kangaroos in the wilds of California, of course, and there was no zoo in her little town. Did she see them in books? Perhaps–except that the first time she saw a kangaroo in a book, she recognized it from her dreams.

When the girl had grown into a woman, she learned some secrets about herself. She wasn’t a California native. As it turned out, she was born in Australia. And her mother wasn’t her mother. The “mother” had been the girl’s nanny in Australia. When the little girl was only two or three, the nanny ran off her employer (a Scotsman who had immigrated to Australia with his wife), and they took the girl with them. They started over in California, telling the girl nothing about her origins. She dreamt of kangaroos because she had seen kangaroos in an earlier life she couldn’t remember.

That story fascinated me from the first day I heard it. The girl had a clue to her origins, but in the end she couldn’t really know where she came from unless somebody told her. Identity isn’t just something that comes from inside us. We get our names from somebody else. I pondered this business for many years, and eventually my ponderings became The Charlatan’s Boy.

Bonus Story: My grandfather, Abe Ross, Jr., used to say that his parents didn’t name him. They called him Abe Junior until he was old enough to talk, then they asked him what he wanted to be named. “Abe Junior’s fine,” the toddler said. “I’ve been answering to it all my life anyway.”

[Editor’s Note: Today is Audience Participation Friday over at Jonathan Roger’s blog and he’s looking for a few star-crossed Feechiefolk to write some Feechie love poetry. Here’s a sample:

She smells just as sweet as a mud turtle’s feet.
Her hair is as soft as a possum.
Once I walked by her side, but she knocked me cross-eyed.
It took me a week to un-cross ’em.

Visit the blog to add a stanza of your own.

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Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.


7 Comments

  1. Julie

    First, let me say that The Charlatan’s Boy was delightful. I haven’t laughed out loud while reading a book in quite some time. Second, I was struck a the really beautiful undercurrent which ran much deeper than the story… All along, I assumed that the one of the themes was our deep, deep knowledge (even if we don’t have surface knowledge) that we really were built for and belong to a different world. The CS Lewis quote “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” loomed in my head as the story unfolded. Imagine my surprise when I found out that the seed from which the story grew was a kangaroo, not heaven. Although I suppose that there is still a thread connecting the two 🙂

  2. Jonathan Rogers

    You’re right, Julie. there’s definitely a thread connecting heaven and the kangaroos. The kangaroo home just gave me a way to talk about our heavenly home.

    And I did have that very CSL quotation in mind as I was formulating on the story, so you’re definitely right-on there.

  3. Julie Silander

    Oh, and one question. My 7 year old daughter asked me this morning if the feechies were friends with the goblins (Curdie’s goblins). I told her that I did not know, but that I would be happy to find out.

  4. Jonathan Rogers

    Julie, your daughter asks a good and reasonable question. No, feechiefolks are not friends with Curdie’s goblins, for two reasons. First, they are clannish and not especially welcoming to anybody who’s not a feechie. But secondly–and more importantly–the goblins have bad attitudes. Feechies are rowdy, but they are mostly happy. The idea that they are hostile to civilizers (as goblins are hostile to people living above ground) is a civilizer notion. Feechies just want to be left alone to do their thing.

  5. SarahN

    Just finished reading the book a few days ago. I thought sure I would call the ending, and I didn’t, which makes me happy. A gorgeous book about where identity comes from. Well done, Mr. Rogers.

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