Title:Billy Goat Hill
Author: Mark Stanleigh Morris
Genre: Contemporary Fiction/Christian Fiction
Publisher Multnomah Fiction (April 1, 2005)
Reviewer: Dian Moore
Childhood stays with us long after weíve passed the age of innocence, and this tale of growing up too fast is a testament to the resilience of children and the power that making the right choices can bring to lives riddled with despair, fear, lies and uncertainty.
The story opens in 1958, and anyone who is 40-something years of age, will recognize the nostalgic antics we participated in as kids. But Billy Goat Hill isnít just a story about childhood and coming-of-age. Itís a narrative about emotional and physical survival, the power and positive imprint a stranger can leave on a young life; and the rewards that a stubbornness to overcome can bring.
The Parker family is trying to recover from the death of an infant brother, and a motherís grief tends to distance her from her two living sons. Lucinda, as Wade refers to his mother, is a lost soul, and 8-year-old Wade assigns himself the responsibility to care for his foundering family.
Earl, the Parker brothersí father, is mostly missing; a carefree alcoholic who canít seem to connect with his role as a father. Wade wonders how life might be different if Duke Snider, the famous player for the Dodgers, were his father, instead. Wade weighs most of his major life decisions as a child against what Duke might think, say or do, and itís a running theme throughout the book.
But Wade Parkerís most urgent dilemma at 8 years old is completing a dare to ride a cardboard sled down the infamous Billy Goat Hill on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Itís during his early morning escapade, which involves sneaking out of the house with his six-year-old brother, Luke, that the Parker brothers first meet a man and woman who will forever influence their young lives.
Convinced they will be killed for witnessing what looks like a motorcycle gang confrontation, the young Parkers instead become fascinated with a dynamic couple they first know as Scar and Miss Cherry, both of whom are police officers and who are in on a prank to initiate a rookie officer.
From that moment, the Parker boys form a lifelong bond with Scar, aka Sergeant, and Miss Cherry.
At times, the Sergeant and/or Miss Cherry are absent from the continuing lives of the Parker boys; and the incidents that separate the foursome are such that tend to happen in life, but still birth the question of "why."
Also running throughout the story line is a thread of Christianity, which gets picked up, off and on, through dilemmas and the people who come into a life. Like a needle slipping in and out of fabric, it nicely ties the story together and brings all the pieces together like a well-made quilt.
This is not intended as a touchy-feely, feel-good book; but it is a well-above-average, satisfying read that leaves a good feeling behind anyway.
Morris writes with a lyrical voice and uses vivid, innovating descriptions that beg to be read aloud. Morris was born and raised in Southern California, a background that brings a richness to the setting for Billy Goat Hill.
Told in first person from Wadeís point of view, Billy Goat Hill spans the defining years of childhood and early adulthood, throws in some life events in the middle, and ends with Wade at 40 years old and coming into his fullness as a man of God.
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Interview with Mark Stanleigh Morris, author of Billy Goat Hill
FWM: You write with a lyrical voice and I wonder at your influences Ė where you attended school, your favorite writers, and do you read what you write out loud?
MORRIS: I have been influenced by many writers including Pearl S. Buck, Wallace Stegner, Ian Fleming, Jack London, and Earl Stanley Gardner. I greatly admire the work of Pat Conroy, Larry Watson, and Tobias Wolf. Contemporary Christian fiction writers I enjoy include Lisa E. Samson and Traci DePree, and Jane Kirkpatrick writes wonderful historical fiction.
I have been told my prose rings lyrical in the mindís ear. I do think Iím a visual writer. I see complex scenes in my imagination with detailed action, dialogue and lots of sensory elements. The experience is visceral, like stepping from the theater into the movie itself. I become the observer and the observed, the director and the audience. If there are crickets, I hear them. If there is fear, I sense it. If there is blood, I smell it. Then I go to work to find the words that best translate what I visualize to the page.
There was a period many years ago when I recorded my material in my own voice. As a musician and songwriter, it was natural to listen to word rhythms, cadence and phrasing. The technique was useful and probably helped shape my style.
I was an average writer in high school and college. An appreciation for clear and disciplined writing came later in the business world. While I have no formal training per se, I did participate in writersí groups and critique groups for many years. And Iíve attended dozens of writerís workshops and conferences. I still have a long way to go in developing my craft. Iíll be forever striving to trust the reader.
FWM: Following Wade through his defining moments brings Southern California and coming of age in the 60's alive. How much of Wade's experiences are your own?
MORRIS: Billy Goat Hill is a semi-biographical novel. The character of Wade Parker encapsulates a significant part of my childhood experience. Many of the events portrayed in the story did happen in real life, and all of the places, such as Billy Goat Hill, Eagle Rock, Three Ponds and Cavendish Caverns were real places. The death of baby Matthew represents a real life tragedy that occurred in 1964. My youngest brother, John, died of leukemia at age nine. His death precipitated the disintegration of our family and was the seminal event of my young life. Thankfully, not everything that transpires in the book actually happened in real life. Like Wade, I was a lonely, introspective kid who ultimately came to understand the power of forgiveness that comes through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. In real life, it took a little longer than it did for Wade.
FWM: When writing a book that contains Christian elements, how do you decide where to draw the line in telling a story vs. preaching?
MORRIS: Christian writers exist to serve, worship and glorify God. We want to share the Good News. But, like all novelists, "Christian" novelists must be story-tellers first. We must rely on the power of story to communicate the values and beliefs we hold sacred. On one hand, preaching has no place in fiction. On the other hand, as Christians, we are messengers for the promise of Christ. I am guided by my faith, and my faith clearly informs my writing. But it does not form my writing. I seek to touch and influence hearts, but I am not a preacher. Deciding where to draw the line is a challenge. It requires skill. Thankfully I am blessed to work with experienced editors who help me decide where to draw the line.
FWM: Can you share your inspiration for the compelling characters of Scar and Miss Cherry?
MORRIS: Scar and Miss Cherry are composite characters drawn from my impressions of people I have met or known over the years. I think what makes them compelling is that they are emblematic of the imperfection in all of us. They make terrible choices that have far-reaching consequences. Human beings, even those with the noblest of intentions, will always disappoint. Scar and Miss Cherry are studies in human fallibility. I want the reader to put on the masks of Scar and Miss Cherry, the two people Wade so desperately believed in, and feel the power of Wadeís forgiveness for them. As disappointing, hurtful, even horrific as life sometimes can be, scripture teaches us that all things work for the good of God. We often donít understand Godís mysterious ways. But we can have faith in His infallibility. He is never wrong and He never lets us down. What matters most is where we are in relationship with Him.
FWM: Growing up can be painful, and I found it interesting that so many of the circumstances in the Parker boys' lives can be duplicated today, making Billy Goat Hill timeless. What message would you wish your readers to take away from this book and apply to their lives?
MORRIS: Growing up is a universal theme. Life is a journey about finding meaning and purpose. We are born into a fallen world where nothing is constant or lasting. Like Wade and Luke, we get beat up along the way. But God is never far away and He wants so much for us to know Him. He calls out to each life again and again, ever hopeful that we will hear Him and draw near. My hope is that my readers will find affirmation and inspiration in the bookís timeless message of forgiveness. My prayer is that hurting people will identify with Wade and Luke, and let Godís implicit message of forgiveness come into their hearts.
FWM: As a reviewer, I felt the book was equally suitable for young adults through adults Ė who is your intended audience?
MORRIS: My heart yearns most for the unsaved reader and my dream is that Billy Goat Hill will find its way into the secular market. I believe the story appeals equally to men and women and is suitable for readers perhaps age fourteen and up.
FWM: How did you begin writing fiction?
MORRIS: There is a running joke in our family that I began writing fiction out of frustration. One day in the late 1980ís I got half way through the latest NYT bestselling novel and set it aside in disgust. "I know I can write something this bad," I complained to my wife. She challenged me to put my pen where my mouth was. So, itís all her fault.
While that did really happen, the truth is my interest in fiction has a lot to do with my having been a rather shy, introspective kid who tended to keep his feelings to himself. I compensated for the shyness with an oversize imagination and an abundance of creativity. I first wrote poetry and song lyrics. Eventually I started writing stories. But it wasnít until my late thirties that I began to write fiction in a serious way. When I surrendered my heart to Jesus in 1998 God made it clear He had a specific plan for me. But first he had me spend time in the proverbial desert learning about His way and His will. For five years I did very little writing. When God decided it was time to put me to work for Him, He presented the opportunity to team up with Multnomah Publishers. Billy Goat Hill is our first project.
FWM: Were there any instances in Billy Goat Hill where you wondered where you should take the story next, and if so, how did you decide which direction to take?
MORRIS: Yes, several. A big one was whether or not to have Mac die. Mac was real, and he still lives in my heart. Though different from how he dies in the book, in real life he was tragically killed. I was deeply affected when it happened. Part of me wanted Mac to survive in the book, as I wished he had in real life. Instead, I decided to follow the trend throughout the book and stay close to my personal life experience. Another important decision involved the boyís father, Earl. Should Earl reappear in their lives? His return wouldíve caused a huge shift in the story and more than likely would have resulted in a different ending. I wanted Earl to return, but decided to keep his whereabouts a mystery...for now. Maybe he is dead. I donít know.
FWM: Tell us a little about yourself?
MORRIS: I have an incredibly supportive wife, Karen, three grown children, and one granddaughter. No pets at the present time. We love animals but travel too much to be responsible pet owners. I am an obsessed walker, enjoy the outdoors, and find yard work and gardening highly therapeutic.
FWM: What jobs have you held that lend to the authenticity of Billy Goat Hill?
MORRIS: Like Wade Parker, I worked at a carwash when I was a kid. I hated those "unprofitable" rainy days. I also served four years as a reserve police officer. Knowledge of law enforcement is reflected in a lot of my work. Other jobs and life experiences will be reflected in future novels.
FWM: What are you working on now?
MORRIS: I am working on two more novels for Multnomah and have other projects in the works. I maintain a busy appearance schedule on behalf of my writing, my publisher and the book trade. I also work closely with a ministry I founded called Fallbrook Ministries. Fallbrook seeks to encourage and support frontline ministries including Christian missions, pastor care programs, pro-life, pro-family and pro-marriage efforts, pregnancy resource centers, youth ministries, Christian arts and church projects. I pray my gift and calling as a communicator will always glorify God. It is a privilege to lift up and encourage others and sow resources back into the Kingdom. Itís all about ministry.
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For more information about Mark Stanleigh Morris and his ministry, visit the authorís official web site at www.markstanleighmorris.com
Dian Moore is a freelance writer, editor and reviewer and the hands behind Hands for Hope, www.handsforhope.com. If you would like to write to Dian, you can do so via the Letters page of this magazine.
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