My favorite book of 2019 is the memoir, Once More to the Rodeo. Author Calvin Hennick wants to teach his son, Nile, lessons he hopes will help him navigate through life successfully: what it means to be a man and the importance of taking care of family. He decides to take Nile on a road trip from their home in the Boston area to Hennick’s tiny hometown of Maxwell, Iowa. Their destination is the town’s rodeo. He anticipates having the important conversations with his son along the way.
Father-son bonding trips have become fairly common, as have the memoirs that have centered on them. Rights of passage are often a catalyst—time together before the son leaves for college, addressing hurts in the face of Dad’s divorce from Mom, an effort to reconnect after the son has his own children. A right of passage is also a motivator in Once More to the Rodeo but not one that typically garners this degree of reflection in the form of a memoir.
Nile is only five years old. He’s weeks away from starting Kindergarten. For the trip in “The Black Racer,” as Nile has nicknamed the rental car, Hennick straps Nile into a booster seat.
Another motivator is the troubled relationship Hennick had with his own father, a meth addict who lives in his mother’s basement and a grandfather who adopted Hennick and then left the family. He wants to be nothing like his father and grandfather. Throughout the trip he wrestles with how to resolve his feelings about them, what it means to be a good man, and what it means to raise one.An undercurrent that bubbles to the surface intermittently throughout the trip centers on the life lesson Hennick is incapable of teaching his son.
“Nile is a brown boy in a world where that still very much matters, and I have nothing to teach him about how to be a black man in America.”
Calvin is white. His wife, Belzie, is from Haiti. The road trip begins in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement. Hennick thinks of the cases that made national headlines and the black males at the center of them.
“What I will remember most vividly about this period is how all these young black men were labeled “thugs” after they’d been shot down in the streets by people who feared them. I watch Nile grow taller, and I see his skin grow darker, and I hold my breath.”
As they reach Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame, Nile wants to hear about “the old-fashioned players.” Hennick explains racial segregation to his son.
“A long time ago, ‘I tell him,’ “People who looked like Mommy and people who looked like Daddy weren’t allowed to play together on the same baseball team. What do you think of that idea?”
“I don’t think that’s good,” Nile says, “That’s not fair!”
“That’s right, baby,” I tell him. “It’s important to treat people fairly, but that’s not what happened. The black people had to make their own baseball team.”
A business and technology writer, Hennick provides excellent pacing. Each chapter chronicles a day on the 10-day trip. As one chapter gives way to the next, the book takes on the form of a narrative countdown. All that Hennick wants to accomplish with his son and for himself, needs to happen by the conclusion of “Day 10.”
At moments when the memoir could have lost momentum because of the tedium of travel, Hennick, through humor and description, keeps the story vibrant, as when the car is inching toward the Canadian border with the checkpoint nowhere in sight.
“As we wait, the sun becomes a big yellow ball on the horizon and then dips below it, turning the sky shades of purple and pink, and orange that would be beautiful if viewed from anywhere other than the inside of a Toyota Avalon that has moved approximately thirteen feet in the past forty-five minutes.”
“Once More to the Rodeo,” whose title is a nod to an essay by children’s author, E.B. White, “Once More to the Lake,” also about a father-son pilgrimage, begs the question: Is a 5-year-old mature enough to understand issues of gender and race? Perhaps when it comes to race, society forces the issue. Hennick describes how after the trip, a fan made a racial slur at him during a Red Sox game he attended with Nile and his father-in-law, not long after racial taunts were made at Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones at the stadium. The incident involving Hennick received local news coverage and the fan was banned for life.
Winner of Pushcart’s 2019 Editor’s Book Award, the memoir is a reflection on the father-son relationship in all of its complexity, messiness and beauty. It is a father’s love letter to his son filled with hope, fear, and determination.
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