Debut author, Freddie Owens, swings for the fences and hits a home run with his excellent coming-of-age story set primarily in Kentucky, Then Like the Blind Man. When Orbie’s father dies, his life changes forever. His mother, Ruby, finds herself attracted to the smooth-talking, poetic atheist Victor Denalsky, who had been Orbie’s father’s foreman at a steel mill in Detroit. After Orbie’s father dies, Victor courts Orbie’s mother, and eventually marries her. Not wanting to nor desiring to take care of a nine-year-old boy with an attitude, like Orbie, who can’t stand his stepfather, anyway, Ruby and Victor decide to drop Orbie off at Ruby’s parents’ house in Kentucky, with the promise that they’ll come back to get him once they’ve settled in Florida, where Victor supposedly has a job lined up. Orbie’s mother and Victor take with them Orbie’s younger sister, Missy.
The novel is told in the first person by Orbie, who, though young, is very insightful for his age. As I read, I was often reminded of another famous novel told from the POV of a child, Scout, To Kill a Mockingbird. The themes are different, but Orbie’s and Scout’s perspectives on African Americans in the 1950′s are significant to understanding both books. Orbie has some bad experiences with some of the black people he comes in contact with early on in the novel, so he calls them the “n,” word at various points in the story.
Through the course of Then Like the Blind Man, Orbie eventually realizes that his grandparents are great people who love him. They may not have attained a high level of school education, but they are wise about farm life and human nature.
They don’t like it that their daughter, Ruby, has developed a prejudice for blacks, nor that she’s passed it on to Orbie. That’s one of the many nice touches I liked about Freddie Owen’s debut novel, that in it, it’s not Orbie’s grandparents who live in Kentucky that exhibit a prejudiced point of view, but it’s learned from experiences Orbie and his family have living in Detroit, in the north. Of course, in reality, unfortunately you can find prejudice in every state to this day; but, the author didn’t go the stereotypical route of having his northern characters expressing an enlightened POV, and his southern ones being all racists.
Owens, a published poet, has infused Then Like the Blind Man with a poetic sensibility that makes his story and characters come to life for the reader. Through Owens, and Orbie’s story, we feel the emotions of being dumped off somewhere he doesn’t want to live, at his grandparents’ house; but, we come to see them as positive, nurturing influences on Orbie’s life. Though Orbie despises the alcoholic Victor, and how his mother has made wrong decisions (to his POV, anyway), Victor is not portrayed as being completely bad. He does show an interest in Orbie at times, like when Orbie expresses his fascination with a scar Victor has on his neck that he got in WWII.
Orbie comes to think that Victor acts nicely towards him only further to ingratiate himself with Ruby, Orbie’s mother. Ruby is the type of woman who thinks she can change the man she loves, to rehabilitate him, and she always holds out a spark of hope for Victor. This is an aspect about her that kind of frustrated me as a reader, and made me want to tell her–if she was real and in front of me–to stop deluding herself and wake up and realize what a jerk Victor is most of the time. But, thinking of a man who has faults as being some sort of “project,” or someone who can be “rehabilitated,” is a trait that some women have, so Ruby’s having this trait brought even more realism to the story.
Besides there being various themes and messages in Then Like the Blind Man, Orbie’s boyhood exuberance, how he relates to his grandparents, his changing point of view about much of what he’d taken for granted; and his adventures are what really makes the novel captivating. Freddie Owens fills the pages of his novel with other very memorable characters, like the humpbacked elderly lady, Bird; Moses Mashbone; Mrs. Profit; and Nealy Harlan. If you’re a fan of novels like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird, Freddie Owens’s Then Like the Blind Man is s Must Read!