The dark early days of a colorful life

“Angry Rain” by Maurice Kenny

My path never crossed that of Maurice Kenny, although certainly I was aware of his extensive writings, knew him to be active in the Native American community, and knew that he was a North Country notable.

I did notice that whenever his name came up among people who did know him, it was often accompanied by a grin, or raised eyebrows or other nonverbal communication that conveyed him as a character. I came to learn that he was larger than life, passionate in his love of literature and his hatred of, apparently, many other things.

So I don’t know what I was expecting of his posthumously published memoir, “Angry Rain.” The title alone should have alerted me, I guess. I thought I’d be reading a lively account of a lively life, and I did — but the book also frankly conveys the pain that layered the early life of this literary great.

Mistreated by cousins, abandoned by his mother, deemed unteachable by a school principal and raped several times in his young life, Kenny managed to stumble forward in pursuit of dreams and interests, and in spite of these terrible experiences. It is not easy to read about this, in spite of Kenny’s overall spirited tone and the many lyrical passages.

Of some fine memories of his childhood, he writes: “Across warm days of spring and summer, the yard was festooned with ever-changing colors under rich shadows of butternuts, elms and maples, tapped in the dying days of winter for the sweet juices that would eventually end up on the dining room table of this musty old house, crammed with antiques and cats.” Of a low hour, he writes: “Rain washed the bus clean, washed the road, washed the gullies along the road, made swamps of the fields we passed … the rain was angry … and I was running away again.”

He chronicles his thwarted attempts at life in the theater, his rocky road to education, a suicide attempt, adventures and misadventures on journeys away from and, eventually, back to the North Country of his heritage, and his reclamation of his Native identity and the work it inspired. Throughout it all, his passion for literature and his commitment to writing is the thread that ties it all together. In spite of, or because of, discouragement from some influential voices in his life, he persevered with his writing, and states his gratitude repeatedly of the many people he encountered who fostered and inspired his work.

He is humble and frank about his early struggles as a writer. He writes: “I took every literature and writing course offered, even advanced composition, although my idiosyncratic spelling and syntax presented great problems to even the most patient of teachers.”

An inveterate name dropper, he spends a great many pages chronicling the famous people he met through the years, movie stars and authors. But he also identifies the many men and women from whom he learned and whose kindness to him he has tried to repay in kind to many other students and writers along his long and varying journey. The book indeed leaves you with the sense of an exuberant man fully engaged in the literature he cherished and the life it brought him to lead, down dark paths and bright.

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