The other day my sister, a teacher, was trying to help a student fill out some form or other. The form asked for Date of Birth. The girl knew her birthday, but the idea of a birth date, a specific day of a specific year, had her baffled. “The day you were born,” my sister said, a little exasperated, “what year was that?”
The little girl was exasperated herself. She gave my sister a squint and, teeth clenched, said, “A little baby don’t know what year it is.”
When I sat down to write The Charlatan’s Boy, the first sentence I wrote turned out to be the first sentence of the finished product: “I don’t remember one thing about the day I was born.” Grady, the narrator, is grappling with the same epistemological dilemma that was troubling my sister’s student. Anything you think you know about your birth, your origins, is something you got second-hand. Somebody has to tell you where you came from and how you got here. Grady’s troubles stem from the fact that the one person he knows who might be able to tell him anything about his origins is a liar and a fraud.
The seed from which The Charlatan’s Boy grew was a story a friend told me some twenty years ago. His grandmother grew up in California to a Scots father and a German mother. She was pretty typical California girl, but there was one unusual thing about her: she dreamed of kangaroos. She had never seen one in her waking life. There were no kangaroos in the wilds of California, of course, and there was no zoo in her little town. Did she see them in books? Perhaps–except that the first time she saw a kangaroo in a book, she recognized it from her dreams.
When the girl had grown into a woman, she learned some secrets about herself. She wasn’t a California native. As it turned out, she was born in Australia. And her mother wasn’t her mother. The “mother” had been the girl’s nanny in Australia. When the little girl was only two or three, the nanny ran off her employer (a Scotsman who had immigrated to Australia with his wife), and they took the girl with them. They started over in California, telling the girl nothing about her origins. She dreamt of kangaroos because she had seen kangaroos in an earlier life she couldn’t remember.
That story fascinated me from the first day I heard it. The girl had a clue to her origins, but in the end she couldn’t really know where she came from unless somebody told her. Identity isn’t just something that comes from inside us. We get our names from somebody else. I pondered this business for many years, and eventually my ponderings became The Charlatan’s Boy.
Bonus Story: My grandfather, Abe Ross, Jr., used to say that his parents didn’t name him. They called him Abe Junior until he was old enough to talk, then they asked him what he wanted to be named. “Abe Junior’s fine,” the toddler said. “I’ve been answering to it all my life anyway.”