Pride, by William Wharton
8/10, a touching parallel story of a boy, a war veteran, and a caged lion
William Wharton’s “Birdy” is one of my favorite books, and his “Franky Furbo” is another favorite. “Pride” falls short of both of these, though its depiction of growing up in Philly in the Depression is worth the cover price alone.
It’s the story of young Dickie and young Sture, growing up half a continent and half a century apart. Dickie finds an abandoned kitten and raises her at home, even though food is dear, while his father struggles with the difficulties of the job he needs for the family to survive. Sture grows up a virtuoso at nearly everything he touches, even after being wounded in World War I, until he adopts a lion cub and meets a telephone operator who both complicate his life in different ways.
The two of them meet, late in the book, on the Jersey shore at Wildwood, though they interact very little. Both are at points of crisis in their lives, which come to a peak when Sture’s lion escapes from his cage.
Like most of Wharton’s stories, tragedy dogs the characters without ever overwhelming them. Sture’s bright future has become a murky, clouded present, while Dickie’s future occupies less of his thoughts than simply surviving the present. Both have family problems, the difference being that Sture is responsible for his family, while Dickie is a ten-year-old boy. However, also typical of Wharton’s stories, there is hope for both of them.
The strong points of Wharton’s writing have always been in the life he gives his characters, their rough edges and vibrant personalities. Even beaten down as he is later in life, Sture is drawn with enough passion that we feel the life simmering in him. 1930s Philly/Jersey come to life vividly in these pages, but mostly they come to life through the characters, Dickie’s description of the smell of grease paper, or Sture’s examination of the carnival act he bought, which has become not only his livelihood but his home.
It does take the story a little while to get going. It feels like most of the book is backstory leading up to the events at Wildwood. But you don’t mind that, because the characters and the lives they lead are so enthralling that you’re happy to lose yourself in their history. That makes “Pride” a worthwhile read, carries the book through the thin plot and gives it the kind of life that Wharton fans have come to expect, if perhaps not as vivid a life as some of his other works.