For more than five decades, Horton Foote, "the Chekhov of the small town," has chronicled with compassion and acuity the changes in American life -- both intimate and universal. His adaptation of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and his original screenplay Tender Mercies earned him Academy Awards. He received an Indie Award for Best Writer for The Trip to Bountiful and a Pulitzer Prize for The Young Man from Atlanta.
In his plays and films, Foote has returned over and over again to Wharton, Texas, where he was born and where he lives, once again, in the house in which he grew up. Now for the first time, in Farewell, Foote turns to prose to tell his own story and the stories of the real people who have inspired his characters.
He was the first child of his generation of Footes, born into an extended family of aunts, great-aunts, grandparents and dozens of cousins once removed, all of whom discovered that even as a young boy Foote was an avid listener with an uncanny ability to extract a story -- including those deemed unfit for children. Foote's memories are of a time when going down to meet the train was an event whether or not you knew someone on it, when black and white children played together until segregation forced them apart at school-age.
Foote beautifully maintains the child's-eye view, so that we gradually discover, as did he, that something was wrong with his Brooks uncles, that none of them proved able to keep a job or stay married or quit drinking. We see his growing understanding of all sorts of trouble -- poverty, racism, injustice, marital strife, depression and fear. His memoir is both a celebration of the immense importance of community in our earlier history and evidence that even a strong community cannot save a lost soul.
In all of Foote's writing, he reveals the immense drama behind quiet lives, or as Frank Rich has said, "the unbearable turbulence beneath a tranquil surface." Farewell is as deeply moving as the best of Foote's writing for film and theater, and a gorgeous testimony to his own faith in the human spirit.
Though he later earned the moniker "Chekhov of the small town" for his portrayals of ordinary lives, Foote never heard of the Russian master until he went to California at 17 to study acting. In fact, despite a bookish childhood (the precocious Foote joined the Literary Guild and the Book of the Month Club at age 12), the playwright and screenwriter who won Oscars for To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies set out to act rather than write. His eventual change of path is beyond the territory of this genteel, unreflective childhood memoir, but clearly Foote's upbringing in small-town Wharton, Tex., in the 1920s had much to do with it. A backwater short on economic opportunities but disproportionately rich in colorful characters and tragic stories, Wharton--and Foote's extended family of storytellers, gossips and ne'er-do-well uncles--provided abundant inspiration. While Wharton exhibited reflexive racism and dust-bowl poverty, Foote's family was progressive and prosperous. Former slaveholders, they rejected the most virulent Southern traditions for kindly paternalism: Foote tells of finding KKK robes stashed in a cupboard and learning that his grandfather attended one meeting out of a sense of very localized civic duty before resigning in disgust. Foote rarely moralizes or comments on how this, or anything for that matter, shaped him, instead relying on the dramatist's tool of dialogue to capture the textures of daily life. The book is so unreflective that it reads more like family history than memoir, frequently bogging down in perfunctory, dutiful tracings of every tangled limb of the ancestral tree. By far the most vivid character is Wharton, where every house and vacant lot, every storefront and street corner has a complex history.