Nobody Likes an Ugly Child by Olivier Dunrea
reviewed by Charlotte Delacroix
“The two best things about growing up in a poor family are: First, they have no expectations of you, except that you somehow survive. And, secondly, they may not be able to read but they are the best storytellers.” So begins one of the most provocative collections of short stories this reviewer has read in a long time. The thirteen short stories in this collection tell the painful, often hilarious, and moving trials and tribulations of growing up poor in Chickahominy Ridge, Dismal Swamp, Virginia in the 1950s.
Dunrea’s extended family of parents, brother, sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles, and hardbitten, hard loving grandparents is one of the liveliest and loving families imaginable. Whereas food and money may be in short supply stories and love never were. Dunrea’s style is straightforward, unassuming and unsentimental. Each story recalls a specific incident or time in the author’s life. Several stories are “remembered” meaning that the story being told happened before the author was born as can be seen in the poignant story titled ‘Littie Pearl.’
In ‘Littie Pearl,’ one of the family’s favorite stories to tell time and time again, Dunrea tells the heart wrenching story recalling the birth of his cousin, Littie Pearl. One hot, summer day as his parents, grandparents, and aunts worked under the broiling sun in the fields in the mid-1940s one of the aunts, Aunt Mildred, goes into labor. She is told by her father to “Mildred, honey, take a break, and go on and squat under that pecan tree and have that baby. Your Mama can help you if you need it. There’s a an old shoebox in the back of the truck that you can put the baby in. Then you get on back to work. If’n that baby’s still alive at the end of the day, you can name it, and we’ll take it home. If it dies, we’ll just bury it under the pecan tree and won’t say no more about it.” The baby lives and is named Littie Pearl.
Each story is like a pearl. Each one is a gem unto its own right. When they are strung altogether into a complete strand a lively and detailed portrait comes to light of the author’s “dirt poor” childhood and his loving, if somewhat eccentric and erratic family.
‘You Don’t Know You’re Poor Until Someone Tells You’ tells the story as to how the author first learns at school that he is “dirt poor” from a teacher. “Boy, you ain’t nothin’ but dirt beneath my feet and you ain’t never goin’ to be nothin’ but dirt beneath anybody’s feet.” With no hint of self pity or regret Dunrea reveals the depth of his family’s poverty. It occurs to him that it is a bit strange that the women and older girls in the family never actually sit down at the table and eat with the family. Food is served first to the men and older boys with the younger children left to scramble for whatever is leftover. It’s not until the author heads off to college that his mother reveals the secret as to why the women in the family never starved to death. “Oh, hell, son,” Mama said as we drove north on Rt. 13. “We picked and nibbled the whole time we were cooking. We were always hungry, but we weren’t starving.”
In the story ‘He’s Being Beautified’ the painful reality of not being a very attractive child is told in a humorous and no nonsense child’s voice when the author first starts school at the age of five. His cousins and sisters attempt to tame his “big ass ears” with Scotch tape and the admonition that “Nobody’ll notice your ears are taped back. Don’t embarrass us.” Throughout the stories the recurring theme of “don’t embarrass us” is woven seamlessly into the narrative. What the family lacked in money and education they more than made up for with “pure stubborn Southern pride.”
In the story titled ‘This Li’l Chile,’ the author recalls the time at the age of four when he puts his hands on his hips and announces to his family that “This li’l chile is NOT going to stay in this swamp. This li’l chile is moving to town.” And sets off down the dirt road to find the town. Throughout the author’s childhood he longs to live a life vastly different from the one he lives in Dismal Swamp.
Whether telling the emotionally charged story of one of his favorite uncle’s death, and how his aunt tried to climb into the coffin with him, to his mother’s insightful understanding of her son’s need to express himself and be different, these stories never disappoint. In ‘No Eggs Will Die’ when, at the age of five, the author takes a dozen cold eggs out of the ice box (the family did not have a refrigerator) and puts them in a “nest” made from his old, tattered quilt. “After I got all the eggs arranged just right I pulled down my pants and underpants and sat on them. I don’t know why I thought I had to be naked to hatch out the eggs. Somehow it just seemed like the right thing to do.” He proceeds to pull down his pants and sits on the eggs only to be shocked by their coldness and breaks them all. His mother’s “WHY are you so strange?” is repeated time and time again with love and patient exasperation.
‘Sunday Potato Chips’ tells how every Sunday one of the uncles bought a “big bag of Wise’s Potato Chips” to the grandparents’ house, where everyone gathered for dinner, and the once a week special treat of eating potato chips. “We kids would sit on the floor lined up like China dolls waiting for Uncle Ray to count out each one’s fair share of potato chips. It was never more than four or five chips and it was never enough. Each of us placed a chip in our mouth and savored the salty taste. We tried not to chew so as to make the potato chip last longer. To wash down the salty potato chips each of us was allowed one sip from a bottle of Coca Cola. We kids lived for those Sunday treats.”
Childhood and adolescence is never an easy time for anyone. Dunrea relates one of his deepest regrets in life in ‘Why Do You Always Embarrass Me?’ When he was in high school his mother arrived to pick him up with curlers in her hair and was wearing a “sad, worn out dress.” The author’s first words to her were “Why do always embarrass me so much in front of people?” He continues his attack with “And your Southern hillbilly accent is just as embarrassing. Why can’t you talk properly?” These words come back to haunt him many years later when he becomes a published writer and invites his mother to attend book signings, television interviews, and public speaking events, but she always has an excuse as to why she cannot attend. Finally, when pressed as to why she can’t attend a particularly important award presentation, she tells him. “I don’t ever want to embarrass you in front of people.”
Those words haunt the author from that day on.
Nobody Likes an Ugly Child includes stories with titles such as ‘Aunt Mary and Uncle Max,’ ‘Wild Pigs, Wild Times,’ ‘Granddaddy’ and ‘Um, How Do You Say Your Name Again?’
Story by story, pearl by pearl, Dunrea lets the reader get to know him and his “crazy” family, as he likes to put it. As we get to know granddaddy, nanny, mama, daddy, and a bevy of cousins and siblings, aunts and uncles, each one adds to the richness and liveliness of these stories. Each voice, each story rings true and is told in a lively, staccato style.
The title of the collection is taken from the signature story titled ‘Nobody Likes an Ugly Child.’ Dunrea reveals that the word “ugly” in the South has a double meaning: not attractive or, as in referring to a child, misbehaving. “Don’t act so ugly,” is a refrain that is heard throughout these stories. When the author was two years old he recalls the time when his granddaddy called him over. Thinking he was going to be given a treat “I waddled over to granddaddy on my short, bowed legs. I was not an attractive child by any stretch of the imagination. My granddaddy looked at me, I looked at him, expectantly waiting for something sweet to be offered. Instead of the expected treat Granddaddy backhanded me hard across the face and said ‘That’s just for being so ugly.’ Mama, running to my defense said ‘Oh, daddy, I know he’s ugly, but don’t keep telling he’s ugly.’ I quickly learned that if you are the ugly child life is going to be rough. And it’s best to discover what your talent is as soon as possible. I discovered that I had two talents: I could run fast and I could read and write.”
In the final story ‘I Won’t Embarrass You’ Dunrea leaves his poor Southern family in order to pursue his lifelong dream of going to college ‘Up North.’ He never looks back.
The author states that his “wild imagination and love of stories, and later, books, saved his mental sanity” through all the chaotic insanity of growing up poor. “We really were dirt poor, as I slowly came to accept. Stories were our lifeline. What we lacked in money we made up with in words. Words were our currency. And my family could spend with the best of them.”
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with this quirky and ribald family. I shared their triumphs and their tragedies as if they were my own. Nobody Likes an Ugly Child is one of those short story collections that you hate to see come to an end. We can only hope that Dunrea will share more of his family’s stories with us.