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From Teenage Runaway to Class President - an Editorial Review of "Boy at the Crossroads"



Author Bio:


Mary Ford is an award-winning journalist who spent twenty-eight years as the editor of two successful, small-town newspapers in Massachusetts. She met Conley in 1971 and has always been fascinated by his story. They live in Scituate, Mass. with their dog, George. This is Mary’s first novel. You can visit her website: maryfordedit.com.



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Editorial Review:


Biographical drama is a special and difficult form of storytelling because the writer is converting a real person’s life into a medium that depends on exiting the realm of reality as understood and confirmable by experts. It makes their story more accessible by giving it a fictional coating, allowing the writer to enter the character’s psyche and fill in unknowable gaps that a nonfiction biographer could not. It is also more accessible because many audiences find fiction more lively and consumable than nonfiction. The writer’s challenge is fusing the reality, or what is known of it, with the fiction in a way that the drama remains plausibly accurate and still exciting for the layperson. This means biographical drama sits between the real and unreal so as to make reality more interesting to others.

Mary Ford’s Boy at the Crossroads is a wonderful new entry into the genre. It is beautifully written and, as a coming of age tale about a defiant young man, primarily set in the 1950s, even acts as a biographical drama equivalent to The Catcher in the Rye. But whereas Catcher was about preserving innocence, Boy at the Crossroads’ main theme is how a youth responds to societal structure. This is evident from the novel’s opening line:

Three questions rattled around in my head for years. How was I able to run off at thirteen and live on my own? How did I become self-reliant at such a young age? Why was I more at home, away from home?”

The story then follows Conley Ford as he resists his overbearing father by following the guidance of older boys, leading to an adolescence of crimes and misdeeds as well as an adventure across the Deep South and elsewhere that finally culminates in finding a balanced, productive structure in the Air Force.

Most biographical novels are character studies of their subject, and Boy at the Crossroads adheres to this mold. It also succeeds in this task better than most, for two reasons. First, because Mary Ford is the subject’s wife, and so she knows her subject intimately. She knows his voice and could speak with him about details in a way that many biographical novelists cannot ask their subjects. The second reason is that this novel is written in the first person. It takes a confident writer to attempt a first person narration and a competent one to pull it off. Mary Ford proves she is both by deploying the voice she knows so well as the route by which to tell her story. Consider the following quote from the second chapter, and how succinctly it captures Conley Ford’s personality and worldview:


Figuring lying could make matters worse, I said, ‘Yes, sir,’ right off.”

This single sentence highlights Conley’s judgment, his desire to conform to structure so as to minimize punishment, and reflects his impoverished southern roots in his voice. From this sentence a reader can grasp who they are dealing with when meeting Conley in this novel, and how he approaches society.


The quality of the author’s first person prose makes the novel’s descriptive writing one of its biggest strengths. It is a joy to read about Conley’s adventures because the author brings him and his surroundings to life at every step. This is not a case where a novel's substance succeeds despite being conveyed in poorly written prose. Mary Ford clearly has enough writing experience under her belt that she is confident in her style and can wield it effectively. She uses the active voice and her sentences are not bogged down with unnecessary clutter. They are clear and move the narrative along at a nice pace. The prologue makes this evident, as the author, through Conley, tells the Ford family history in under ten pages. The reader feels familiar with this family and can relate to Conley’s frustration by the time the proper novel starts. This short paragraph from Chapter One displays the quality of the author’s prose:


Betty was my favorite sister and a second mother to me. She was the opposite of Mom. Betty’s mouth was always painted with cherry-red lipstick that contrasted with her jet-black hair. She wore high heels and stylish dresses to her job as a switchboard operator at Southern Bell. Our Mom never wore makeup. She wore practical lace-up oxfords and her dresses were made of printed cotton feed sacks.”


The novel’s dialogue, though not bad, is weaker than its description, reading like dialogue written in a novel and lacking the natural sound of how people actually speak. This leads to the first person narration sounding more like Conley the character’s voice than when he actually speaks. The dialogue in no way ruins the reading experience, but it is not at the same level of quality as the novel’s other elements.


The story is primarily told through a conventional, linear narrative, but the author does make effective use of flashbacks. Chapter Two, which focuses on a criminal trial for Conley’s misdeeds as part of the “Mercury Gang,” includes a flashback to an incident where Conley and a friend stole a man’s golf balls and Conley feared legal punishment. The flashback shares topical substance with the primary narrative and heightens that narrative by showing how Conley navigated the similar problem in his past. In doing so it shows the story’s direction. Other flashbacks are used with similar effectiveness, demonstrating knowledge of how to use techniques that can undermine lesser writers.


Biographical dramas are usually about famous historical figures. They’re about leaders, artists, and revolutionaries. They treat these people in ways familiar to consumers of fiction. They’re drenched in insecurities about the events they lived through as they happen in real time. This humanization is one of the genre’s great achievements, but nowhere is it written that this treatment must only be done for the Caesars and Schindlers of the world. The fascinating lives of everyday, unknown people are ripe for conversion. Boy at the Crossroads proves this. Mary Ford excelled at transforming her husband into a fictionalized character, creating a portrait at once both intimate and entertaining. This is an excellent biographical novel and is highly recommended to interested readers.


*****


Boy at the Crossroads” by Mary Ford receives five stars from The Historical Fiction Company and the “Highly Recommended” award of excellence.


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