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Study Guide Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder

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MOUNTAINS BEYOND MOUNTAINS CHAPTER SUMMARY

 

PART II - The Tin Roofs of Cange

 

CHAPTER 5

 

Summary

This chapter is Kidder’s research into how Farmer’s background caused him to make the choices he made. His parents came from western Massachusetts, and Paul was born in the mill town of North Adams in 1959, the second of six children, three boys and three girls. He looks mostly like his mother who had quit college early to marry and be a mother. His father was a big man and a ferociously competitive athlete known as Elbows to people with whom he played basketball. His daughters called him the Warden, because he wouldn’t allow them to use make-up, have boyfriends, or stay out late.

Because his father was a restless sort of man, he left his steady job as a salesman in Massachusetts and moved his family to Birmingham, Alabama in 1966. It would be some of the happiest years for the family, especially Ginny, Paul’s mother, because they lived in a house and even had an automatic washing machine. They even bought, at public auction, a large bus for family vacations. They named it the Blue Bird Inn. Paul flourished here as well, being placed in gifted classes in school and even subjecting his siblings to his “herpetology class.” He went to Catholic Church, but didn’t feel engaged, pointing out that his books caught his attention more. He even likened War and Peace to The Lord of the Rings.

When sales work disappointed the Warden, he turned to teaching, but the atmosphere in Alabama in the 1960’s worried him and Ginny, so he found a job in the public schools of Florida, and the family moved there in 1971. Unfortunately, the beloved washing machine wouldn’t fit in the bus, and it would be many years before Ginny saw another one. They parked the bus at a campground, and it became their home. Ginny was forced to take a job at a local Winn-Dixie, and she also was expected in their “traditional home” to do all the wifely duties as well. However, she insisted on reading aloud to her children and pushing the concept of education on them all. Years later, she herself would graduate from Smith College. The family remained in the campground for five years where Paul learned to concentrate in the midst of all kinds of noise and where he used a tent after an accident in the bus forced the family out until repairs were made.

Once, when funds were low, the Warden decided they would pick citrus, but Paul pointed out that white people didn’t pick citrus. His father’s only response was, “Yeah? I’ll give you white people.” This would be Paul’s first experience with Haitians for they were the ones who usually picked citrus.


Because the pay picking the fruit was so meager, the Warden decided to quit that project after a few days. Instead, he bought an old boat and fixed it up and renamed it The Lady Gin after his wife. He declared that it would be a source of revenue in the area of commercial fishing and so the family set out on their first voyage. They got caught in a major storm, and Ginny rose up against her husband for once and demanded they throw the generator overboard as an extra anchor. The experience turned out alright, but the danger they were in didn’t faze the Warden at all. Paul said later, “But the thing was - it was a strange feeling - you knew he didn’t know what he was doing, but you also felt the security. That he would get us out of the situation. That nothing was really going to beat him.” Nonetheless, future voyages were limited to staying moored on an uninhabited bayou on the Gulf Coast called Jenkins Creek. Paul continued to flourish here, because he loved the nature that surrounded him. He even saved money from his part-time jobs to landscape the area around the boat. This life, of course, was the hardest on Paul’s mother: working all day and caring for the family all night, having to deal with a refrigerator that was much too small, washing clothes at a laundromat and washing themselves and their dishes in the brackish water of the bayou, stealing their drinking water from an outdoor spigot at a convenience store, and living with vehicles that often broke down and were embarrassing to look at.

Farmer’s comment on his childhood was, “The way I tell myself the story is a little too neat. I’d like to be able to say that when I was young I lived in a trailer park, picked fruit with Haitians, got interested in migrant farm workers, and went to Latin America. All true, but not the truth. We’re asked to have tidy biographies that are coherent. Everyone does that. But the fact is, a perfectly discrepant version has the same ending.” In spite of this truth, his upbringing was good for both Paul and his siblings. They grew up well, albeit choosing to live in houses, and became successful people. His childhood especially helped Farmer prepare for a traveling life, sleeping anywhere, including a dentist’s chair, and never having needed a sense of a hometown. Cange in Haiti became his hometown. His childhood also helped him score a full scholarship to Duke University.

At Duke, Paul failed to score all A’s his first semester, because he plunged into every organization and cultural event he could. For the first two years there, his family feared he was turning into a preppy, which the Warden quickly dispelled when he told his son that a preppy can still clean the bilge. Eventually, however, he saw that this wasn’t the life for him, even quitting his fraternity, because they wouldn’t admit anyone who wasn’t white. He also returned home less and less in his final two years, because he needed to get out from under his father. All the Farmer children craved their father’s approval, but the man made it hard to get. He never allowed Paul to see any pride in his achievements out of fear he’d make his head swell. Also, the Warden had been forced to move the family once again, this time to a trailer that the two youngest sisters called the Star Road State Prison. None of the children wanted to live near there, so they all began to drift away.

Paul did share certain qualities with his father, above all their intense focus on a goal. The Warden died a few years later in July, 1984, while playing a pick-up game of basketball. He evidently had a heart attack at the young age of 49. Paul brought home a girlfriend soon after his father’s death, and they explored the Blue Bird Inn while he was there. He discovered an old letter that his father had written him saying, “I just want you to know how proud I am.” Paul sat there holding the letter and sobbing his heart out. He had finally received his father’s approval.

 

Notes

This chapter is not only revealing of what molded Paul’s character but it is also very touching. It helps the reader understand what made Paul the man he is. His childhood was not easy, but he adapted and flourished within it. And it’s easy to see that it provided him with the tools to accomplish his oeuvre.

 

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