Gregory Yawman – The Summer Of The Terraplane Blues
Author Gregory Yawman has written a fictional account of a young college student’s venture into the Mississippi Delta in 1938, a journey that is as much about escaping a domineering father as it is about studying the impact of blues music on the Negro culture.
Having finished his second year at the University of Pennsylvania, James Howard desperately wants to escape a stifling future in his father’s seafood business. But he has never been able to stand up to his father’s domineering presence. Leaving his Baltimore home, Howard heads to Memphis to pick-up an automobile his father has arranged for him to use for the summer through one of his business associates. The vehicle turns out to be a 1932 Hudson-Essex Terraplane, immortalized in the first record Robert Johnson released, complete with multiple bullet holes that add character to the appearance. The plan is for Howard to travel to Biloxi, where he will get experience at a seafood plant. But our hero has other ideas on how to spend his summer vacation.
Once Howard heads on down the road on his big adventure, the story picks up steam. Stopping in Robinsonville, MS, the collegian gets a chance to hear Robert Petway, one of many real blues musicians that Yawman weaves in his story line. Also joining the action is Franklin, an aspiring teen-aged harmonica player who volunteers to guide Howard around the area to the best music spots. In short order, Howard finds himself in the presence of Robert Johnson and David “Honeyboy” Edwards. Imagine the thrill of being able to hear these two legends live in their prime, which the author works hard to describe. Much to Howard’s dismay, Johnson and a lady friend disappear into the night in his borrowed Terraplane without even a word. Soon Howard, Honeyboy, and Franklin take off in pursuit to reclaim the car and Howard’s cash stashed away inside it.
The author puts the trio in peril with a local sheriff, ending up on a work gang. Honeyboy figures out a plan to extricate them from clutches of the law, and the journey continues deeper into the Delta. Yawman expertly mixes in factual details of the lives of various blues artists with his imagining of how they actually lived. The specter of racism is never too far away, providing the impetus for several plot twists. One weakness of the plot is that Howard seems almost oblivious to racist attitudes initially, which seems far-fetched for that time period, even for a young black man raised in an affluent home in the north. But he is quickly schooled on the insidious attitudes prevalent in Mississippi in the 1930’s.
Yawman is able to humanize the musicians, and create some feel for what life was like in that region eighty years ago. It is a coming-of-age tale for Howard, who in one short summer deals with loss, death , the girl that got away, and reaching the inevitable point where a child strikes out on their own, despite the hopes and dreams their parents may have for them. The Summer Of The Terraplane Blues holds your interest as Yawman creates a believable plot infused with characters that feel real to the reader. One of the better books of fiction centered on blues music – definitely worth reading!