Book Review of The Lawrenceville Stories

The Lawrenceville Stories
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"The Lawrenceville Stories" is actually an omnibus volume containing two books of interconnected short stories revolving around the adolescent population of the real-life prep school in Lawrenceville, New Jersey during the early 1900's. For the most part, the first book ("The Prodigious Hickey") and the second ("The Tennessee Shad") center around the main characters whose nicknames furnish their titles, but often the short stories within also diverge to relate (mis)adventures of a vast cast of young supporting characters.

Shameless lovers of the English language will delight in Owen Johnson's dry, witty prose. One can let the volume fall open almost anywhere and gorgeous little jewels tumble forth, such as: "And for an hour the tugging souls of forty-two imprisoned little pagans would have to construe, and parse, and decline, secretly cursing the fossils who rediscovered those unnecessary Latin documents."

The stories are also full of lovely little details of life at the turn of the previous century, stories of jiggers consumed at the malt shop, of dickeys and detatchable shirt cuffs, of football strategy in the days before helmets and padding.

And finally, there's something indescribably disarming about how the stunts of these aspiring felons are justaposed with so much tenderness. Such as, the story of a youngster known as "Little Big Man", who benefits from the secret fatherly side of the young tough everyone calls "Butcher" and has an opportunity to return the favor by bravely intervening with the headmaster to save Butcher from expulsion.

Unfortunately, these stories also reflect the negatives of their time, and it's certainly a jarring experience to come across strange, regrettable phrases such as "I say, that was so white of you!" or to notice the stark absence of any significant female characters.