A Real American by Richard Easton;
Clarion Books: New York, 2002; $15
This is the heartfelt story of two young boys becoming friends under some very adverse conditions. Nathan McClelland is a Pennsylvania farm boy whose neighbors have moved out, sold out to the coal company. He is lonely, with all of his friends gone, and his wish of a friend comes true with Arturo Tozzi, a young miner boy in the first wave of immigrants, the only child of the lot. Arturo wishes to see Nathan’s animals, and have a friend in his new country. Nathan wishes to mold Arturo like his old and now gone friends Ben and Pete, and first tries to teach Arturo how to read. However, he acts too uppity, and Arturo shuns reading, wanting to be “a friend, not a student,” or inferior. When Nathan’s old friends, Ben and Pete, come back to visit, they accuse Arturo of being a foreigner, and Nathan tries to tell them that he is who he isn’t, a boy named Arthur who’s just like them. Arturo runs away, saying that he is who he is, Arturo Tozzi. Nathan, eating humble pie, decides to help Arturo, and assists in hindering troopers to convince Ernesto, Arturo’s firebrand brother, to give up the strike. In this act of faith, Nathan and Arturo’s friendship is restored, and they go on as friends.
However, did Nathan and Arturo really resolve their friendship? If Arturo can’t read, he can’t communicate as well with Nathan as he could if he could read. The friendship is less powerful when Arturo and Nathan can’t communicate in ways other than a pidgin English. It’s like a Russian and an Egyptian trying to talk through Russian. The Egyptian can’t use a full mastery of Russian, so the two don’t know each other as well, and the bond is less potent.
In the book, Nathan rebels against tradition to become friends with Arturo; his father expects him to stick only with the people and things he knows best. (Arturo’s father supports the friendship, for the good it could do his son.) In the book Rocket Boys, by Homer Hickam, Jr., a young boy defies his own West Virginia coal mining town’s tradition of becoming a high-school football star, and going on to work in the local mine. He decides to become a rocket scientist, under the heavy hindrance of his father, a head miner who doesn’t believe in rockets until the very end, when the boy wins the National Science Fair, like Nathan’s father who didn’t believe Arturo could be a good friend until he helped Nathan stop the strike.
It was surprising that miners had to buy their own tools, blasting powder, and extra timber to hold up the mine. This may account for the destitution of conditions in the mine, with no protection from the poisonous gases inside, and not enough timber to support cave-ins, and the poverty of the miners themselves, living in company-built shacks, and with barely enough food bought with credit from the company store to feed a family. This penury is illustrated in Growing up in Coal Country, listed in the back of the book by the author as reference, which gives a detailed account of the day-to-day lives of Pennsylvania coal miners.
But, if Nathan wasn’t lonely, if his friends Ben and Pete were still living right next door, and hadn’t sold, would there still have been a friendship? That’s doubtful, because the only reason Nathan agreed to be Arturo’s friend was because he was lonely for Ben and Pete. Likewise, if Arturo had been in the second wave of miners, when they brought their kids, and Nathan was lonely, then Arturo wouldn’t need Nathan, though Nathan would need him. It’s sad that the only beginning fuel for this friendship came through the needs of Nathan and Arturo for a friend. If one of their needs had been fulfilled, there wouldn’t have been a friendship.