The story of how my parents carried Albert home was a bit more than their fanciful tales of youthful adventure. Put all together, it was their witness and testimony to what is heaven’s greatest and perhaps only true gift, that strange and marvelous emotion we inadequately call love.
Homer Hickam (the younger)
Homer Hickam grew up hearing tall tales about his mother’s alligator, Albert. Elsie Hickam “loved Albert more than just about anything in the whole world”, but Elsie’s new husband, Homer, finally issues an ultimatum: “‘Me or that alligator.'” After thinking it over, Elsie reluctantly agrees to give up her beloved pet, returning him to his native Florida. The young couple’s road trip from West Virginia to Florida involves more adventures than most people have in a lifetime.
Elsie and Homer befriend John Steinbeck while visiting a vagrant camp; they have dinner with Ernest Hemingway in Key West just before the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935; they become paid actors when they stumble upon a movie set; and they have run-ins with a variety of lowlifes and criminals, from bank robbers to bootleggers to smugglers. Albert himself plays baseball, flies in a plane, and plays a mysterious part in saving Homer’s life.
At its heart, Carrying Albert Home is a love story. In an interview, Hickam says, “It’s a book for people who are in love, want to be loved, know somebody who has been in love, or is interested in love even as a concept.”
Elsie is attached to Albert because he was a wedding gift from Buddy Ebsen, whom she’d met and developed a crush on when she was attending secretarial school in Orlando. (Remember Buddy Ebsen? He played Jed Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies.) Elsie ends up returning to West Virginia and marrying a coal miner, which is not the glamorous life she envisioned: “Every morning when Elsie blinked awake, she was always a little surprised to find herself a coal miner’s wife. After all, to avoid that very thing, she’d caught a bus to Orlando the week after she’d graduated from high school.”
Elsie’s dissatisfaction with her lot in life shows itself through her short temper and sharp tongue. Cynical readers may find themselves hoping that Homer will leave Elsie in Florida with Albert. Hickam says, “A lot of readers don’t like Elsie when they first start reading Albert. They say she’s selfish. But as the book goes along, we see her grow into someone perhaps more admirable and, dare I say it, lovable?” Homer’s patience with Elsie, despite her lack of warmth toward him, is almost saintlike — but he is as stubborn in his way as Elsie is in hers, refusing to imagine any life for himself besides that of a coal miner. Their epic journey, culminating in the life-threatening hurricane, somehow bonds them as a couple.
Hickam has subtitled his novel “The Somewhat True of a Man, His Wife, and Her Alligator”. The book is a curious blend of memoir and fiction, mixing stories that are obviously tall tales — farcical in many instances — with poignant first-person narratives from the author introducing each section of the book. Hicks describes his mother’s reaction to visiting the movie set of October Sky (his memoir of growing up in Coalwood, West Virginia, which was originally — and more accurately, I think — titled Rocket Boys):
Mom saw Natalie Canerday, the actor playing her, standing on the front porch of the “Hickam” house for the scene. She shook her head. “If I’d known you were going to make me famous, sonny, I’d have stayed younger and thinner.”
And then she told me about the movie she and Dad and Albert made.
So what is this book, since it’s “somewhat” true? Hickam and his publisher weren’t sure how to classify the book. He says:
That was the question from the start with this book. What is it? Nonfiction, memoir, fiction? . . . I settled for fiction because they’re in the best lit place in the bookstore. I like to say Albert is all true except for the parts that aren’t and they’re true, too. It’s what I hope will be the first of a new genre: Family legends!
How often have aspiring writers been told to “write what you know”? Elsie, who dreams of writing a novel, discusses this advice with Steinbeck:
“So you’re saying you should always write what you know?”
“Or think you know. The truth is that a lot of things we think we know we don’t know at all. For instance, why are you on this journey?
When Elsie didn’t answer, Homer did. “We’re carrying Albert home.”
“Oh, I think it’s a lot more than that,” Steinbeck said.
Homer Hickam has written a book about what he knows — his parents and their love for each other. The novel has just enough edge to keep it from becoming mawkish, and in any case, there’s nothing wrong with a little sentimentality. As author Jim Harrison said, “I would rather give full vent to all human loves and disappointments, and take a chance on being corny, than die a smartass.”
As enjoyable as it is, Carrying Albert Home could have benefited from some more editing. Elsie and Homer’s adventures are entertaining to a point, but in most cases include more detail than necessary, becoming somewhat tedious. Some readers may be more fond of tall tales than I am; I confess to being more of a fan of realistic fiction and nonfiction. I understand one of the reasons why Hickam wrote his parents’ love story as a novel — he just didn’t know which parts of the story of their journey were fact and which were fiction. In the end, it doesn’t matter — as he says, “their fanciful tales” reveal “an embedded truth”.
Additional recommended reading:
Rocket Boys is one of my all-time favorite memoirs. It’s one of those rare books that you can pass around to everyone in the family. The book came out in September 1998, the month I started working at Lake Forest Book Store. It really built my confidence, because I sold copy after copy of that book — everyone loved it! Publishers Weekly describes very well what makes a top-notch memoir:
Great memoirs must balance the universal and the particular. Too much of the former makes it overly familiar; too much of the latter makes readers ask what the story has to do with them. In his debut, Hickam, a retired NASA engineer, walks that line beautifully.
Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad That Crossed an Ocean, by Les Standiford, is an absorbing nonfiction account of the history of the Key West Railroad, which was destroyed in the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 and which plays an important role in Carrying Albert Home.
The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, because according to Elsie, she suggested that title to Steinbeck, informing him that his working title, The Harvest Gypsies, was a “terrible name.”