Reynolds Price is best known as a novelist working in a style reminiscent of Faulkner, setting his tales in the small towns of the rural South. Often pigeon-holed as a Southern gothic writer, he is in fact the author of numerous books in divergent genres from poetry to essays, plays, biblical translations and stories. Now, with the publication of A Perfect Friend, Price enters yet another realm: children's books.
Like many of Price's other works, this one sheds light on relationships by focusing on young Benjamin Laughinghouse Barks who, until his mother's death, used the nickname "Laugh." Ben is surrounded by those who care about him - his father who is wrestling with his own grief; his best friend, Robin, who also happens to be his cousin and a girl, and Dunk, his red-headed friend who talks too much. Even Hilda, his mother's old dog, tries to comfort Ben by communicating with him, not through spoken words but through a feeling and understanding that comes from deep within. Though they all want to offer comfort, they know Ben too well to crowd him when he wants to be alone.
Wanting to keep his sadness private, Ben often wants to be alone and draws his only real comfort from thoughts and drawings about elephants. He came by his love of elephants through his mother, who would talk to him about these powerful, gentle creatures and who encouraged him to learn all he could about them. Now thoughts of elephants and of his mother seem to intertwine.
A small circus comes to town bringing an elephant named Sala (which means Sacred Tree) who begins to speak to Ben in the same deep, nonverbal way Hilda does. Ben learns about the sorrow in Sala's past, and he learns much more. Through Sal, Ben learns about friendship and memories. He learns that some days are meant to last a lifetime. He learns about letting go.
Through this gentle story, Reynolds Price proves once again worthy of Eudora Welty's endorsement when she said, "He's just one of our major writers."
Jamie Whitfield is a freelancer who writes from her homes in North Carolina and Tennessee.