The Fur, Fish, Flea and Beagle Club is a fantastic first book by R. M. Byrd, who writes with evident affection about two boys, Jamie Gareth and Ned Custis, spending a hot summer on a hardscrabble farm in North Carolina in the late 1930s. Jamie’s father is opening a saw mill to supply wood to the US Army, and Jamie has been looking forward to working with his father. When Ned Custis, a boy he barely knows from school, is brought by his father to work at the mill, too, Jamie is none too happy. It doesn’t help that Ned has no experience in doing farm chores and that Jamie’s dog, Toby, takes a shine to Ned.
The book is richly populated with wonderful characters: Jamie’s parents and his bossy sister Goria, who Jamie is convinced gets special treatment; Gramma the cow; Nathan Ichabod Hindmarsh Norris, the mailman and a Peeping Tom at the widow Morrison’s house; Sebastian Wood, a WWI vet nicknamed the Ghost because he’s seldom seen and doesn’t speak; and the Right Reverend Costigan Analicious Cramphorne, the pompous, self-righteous and greedy minister of the church the Gareth family attends. The hard working men who populate the saw mill are equally memorable, among them: Snow, the black man Grant Gareth chooses as his foreman; Cyrus Conner, a Native American and ex-shaman from the Northwest; and Eueas Canfield, a nasty man who makes Gareth’s stomach crawl but who has papers to prove he was a vet and gets hired. Eueas becomes Jamie’s and Ned’s sworn enemy when he takes a swipe at Toby with a sickle.
Each character has a fully developed and fascinating backstory, and through them the boys confront good and evil for first time. Both get into all sorts of mischief, the kind you can imagine in a rural setting before the digital era. Hint: think skunk in a mailbox. Jamie also gets to experience love when he meets the daughter of an Irish migrant worker.
The period is described in perfect detail, and Mr. Byrd’s writing has a wonderful, lyrical quality. There were many places that were laugh out loud funny and others that made me cry. There’s a Tom Sawyer sense to the book, with elements of To Kill a Mockingbird, but this book stands uniquely in its own right. A great book for adults, teens, and a one to read to your children.
Tomorrow, I’ll post an interview with the author.
This is an excerpt from a chapter called Holiday, which I think you’ll enjoy.
Fourth of July meant a day off at the mill.
Except for Jamie and Ned.
“This was supposed to be a day off?” Jamie heard Ned mumble behind him as he drove the bucksaw through another slab.
Jamie smiled at him. “Only if we want to eat. We gotta grill the hot dogs and all those hamburgers Momma was patting out last night somehow.”
“You grill hot dogs?” Ned lifted another slab up onto the crossbuck. “Mom boils ours.”
As he set the bucksaw on another piece of wood, Jamie watched his father and Snow set up a section of iron grating on top of support bricks outside the office cabin near the well. They laid in a fire underneath the back side and set out a couple of garden hoes to push and rake the coals around underneath. The two men had no sooner nodded at each other in self-congratulation on their grill when Jamie’s mother drove in.
She was in full brigadier general mode. Jamie studiously applied the bucksaw to the slab as he watched the soundless faraway pantomime of his mother pointing with full extended arm at his father and Snow, directing them to set up tables against the cabin with sawhorses and broad sawn boards. Between sawing strokes his heart wanted to grin as he saw someone else at the business end of her pointing finger. She paced right along behind his father and Snow, mouth in motion, as they unloaded the cardboard boxes of hot dogs and hamburgers from the back of the car.
“Saw faster.” Ned’s voice under his breath as he heaved another slab up onto the sawbucks.
“If we don’t look busy she’ll have us over there quick as Beauregard said ‘Boo.’ ”
A little before noon Marshall rolled in in his pickup, followed closely by the flatbed migrant truck chock full of laughing folks bouncing up against the sideboards. The men helped their wives get down out of the back, and then carried to the tables their pot-luck dishes of green beans, baked beans, cornbread, Cole slaw and buckets of mashed potatoes with gravy and butter. Mrs. Lowery, Lowell’s wife, got Marshall to help heft down two huge pots that turned out to be lemonade.
Out of the back of Marshall’s truck came four washtubs with blocks of ice covered in hay for the hand-crank ice cream freezers. Jamie remembered the smell of the cream and the peaches and ingredients his mother had gotten together last night. He could almost taste it already.
Also out of the back of Marshall’s truck came Dancin’ Charlie. He eased down, glancing back and forth, a huge watermelon in his arms and a huge grin on his face. Jamie felt his father’s hand press on his shoulder and heard his father’s voice deep in his ear. “You two stay away from Charlie’s watermelon, you hear me?”
“Because he’s got a smile on his face. That’s all you need to know.”
“We got enough firewood for now, so why don’t you two go get a half-dozen five-gallon buckets from the storage shed. Fill half of them with water and the other half with sand and put them over there next to the grill.”
As Jamie watched his father walk back to the grill, he heard Ned’s voice in his ear. “I’ll bet you ten ways to Tuesday Charlie’s got that melon spiked with moonshine. What do you think?”
“I think we’d best not get caught having ourselves a taste.”
They plodded over to the shed, got the stack of buckets and dragged the sledge to the back of the kiln where the sand was soft.
When the buckets were half full Jamie paused and leaned on his shovel handle. “How come you ain’t home for the 4th?”
“Pop didn’t say anything about it.” Ned did not look up. He turned the stack of buckets upside down, wedged the rim of the bottom bucket between his feet and pried a bucket from the top of the stack. “And since Momma’s one of 14 … “
“You’re pulling my leg.”
“Not a bit. And Pop keeps the store open all the time, I think half because he’d rather deal with the odd customer than the horde. When holidays come around everybody and his brother’s cousin descends on us. All their wives and husbands and kids and dogs and cats.”
“All of ’em?”
“The whole fam damily of them.”
“So fillin’ buckets ain’t too bad for you then, is it?”
Ned smiled at Jamie. “Not a bit.”
“Well, happy 4th to you.”
“And to you.”
By the time they dragged the sledge of sand buckets to the grill, festivities were in full swing. Everyone was grouped around Dancin’ Charlie and Marshall, who were squared off in a smooth patch of dirt to wrestle. Charlie, predictably, did not get very far. He tackled Marshall around the midsection but Marshall did not move at all and just picked Charlie up and laid him on the ground.
Charlie stood and dusted himself off. “I just wanted to see what would happen, don’t you know.”
‘Rudolph’ Howard Mohegan laughed and slapped his hands. “And now you know.”
“You think you can do better?”
“Against Marshall? I doubt it seriously, but I can take you.”
“Well then, Mr. Get-up-and-go, let’s get to it.” Charlie shoved his shirt sleeves up over his elbows and spit on his palms.
Howard’s girlfriend tried to hold him back. “Let’s just relax and have fun, Honey. Come on.”
He looked her, then glanced around with a half-grin. “I can’t now, Darlin’. I’d never hear the end of it.”
She shifted onto one hip and crossed her arms. “Well, go ahead then. It’s your own doin’. Your mind’s made up no matter what I say.”
Rudolph and Charlie stepped into the dirt patch, spit on their hands and began to circle one another.
“Hey, this is our chance.” Jamie heard Ned’s whisper in his ear.
“Don’t you wanna watch this?”
“Don’t you wanna try that melon? When they start to wrestle, just ease off in that direction.”
The two men charged each other, immediately cracked their heads together a little harder than they wanted to, then pushed at each other and locked arms. They tried to drive each other, but there just wasn’t enough traction in the sandy dirt, so they mostly slipped and slid.
Jamie looked both ways for his father. He couldn’t see him so he eased back behind the cabin and peeked around the corner to the table where Charlie’s watermelon had been cut wide open and lay in slices across the table. Charlie’s wife Lucille and Mrs. Lowery leaned their bottoms against the table in front of it. They leaned shoulder to shoulder with crossed arms and shook their heads, too busy watching their men to watch the watermelon.
“Norma, that man, I swear. He’s gonna get himself hurt one of these days.”
“You mean again, don’t you Lucille?”
Jamie felt Ned’s hand on his shoulder. “Let me.”
“Okay.” Jamie nodded.
He watched Ned approach the table gingerly, his feet gliding close to the ground. Ned had just ducked underneath the table boards and reached his hand up and around the edge for a nice slice of ripe dripping red melon when Norma shifted her plaid bottom against the board and almost shook the table down. Ned jerked his hand back down out of sight.
Lucille half turned. “You watch yourself, honey. If you knock this table down both our men’ll have a conniption. They worked a long time on that melon.”
“Well, if he don’t keep himself out of trouble this year I’ll give him a conniption. She reached behind herself and took the very piece that Ned’s hand had hovered over. She turned back around and took a big bite. She gasped and giggled. “Lord, he soaked this thing good, didn’t he?”
When Lucille leaned together with Norma to take a bite, Ned took his chance, lifted another slice from the table and slunk back around the corner. They eased back between the trees.
“Let’s go back behind the outhouse.” Jamie tugged on Ned’s arm. “Nobody’ll be there for a little while yet.”
They made their way around the outside of the gathering, past men on the edge of the crowd sipping out of mason jars in paper bags, past the cabin, past stacks of lumber to the outhouse that sat against the fence. They sat down behind it and looked at the deep red watermelon meat.
Jamie couldn’t help but laugh. “You ready?”
Jamie got out his knife and sliced off as close to half as he could. “Let’s both bite at the same time, all right? One, two, three …” and bit down on the juicy melon. Before he could blink he could not breathe. Tears gushed to his eyes as his mouth exploded with fire. He swallowed hard, spit, pulled a deep painful breath into his lungs and coughed.
In between coughs Ned wheezed. “How in the hell does anybody ever drink that stuff. Holy mother of …”
About the author
R.M. Byrd lives in North Carolina with his wife and two cats, as well as wild deer, hummingbirds and, appropriately, the odd nuthatch. He has been writing since before he can reliably recall. Though he has great trouble writing short, his short fiction has appeared in the literary journal The Iconoclast, the Best Raleigh Reading collection of The Main Street Rag and in Offshoots, the literary collection of the Geneva Writers’ Group of Geneva, Switzerland.
You can find his book at
Check out his blog: https://byrdwords.wordpress.com/