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By A. E. Hotchner
New York: HarperCollins, 1972
240 pages

Bob Corbett
July 2015

This is the third time I have read this book, but the first time I’ve read it since I started writing about the books I read (I started that project back in the year 2001). This time, however, I read it aloud to my partner, Sally, and since we both know St. Louis quite well and especially Dewey School, we found it exceptionally interesting and we would often to pause and talk about the places mentioned and described in this work. It led to many discussions about what we knew of the Depression from our parents’ stories since both of us were born a very few years after it ended, thus we never directly experienced it.

While this is a marvelous story of Depression times, I think it would be of more interest to people in St. Louis, Mo. than most other places. Since it is at least billed as a “memoir” rather than a novel, author Hotchner is completely accurate in his descriptions of places and names of places. However, I find it a bit “open” to the question of do I really trust this as a “memoir” in the sense of being fully accurate to the events and actions of the novel.

Nonetheless, I simply loved it, even though it was my THIRD read of KING OF THE HILL. The very special attraction is that the 12/13 year old narrator is telling the story of his last days of elementary school, and he was a student at the Admiral John Dewey School in my own neighborhood of “Dogtown.”

However, most readers who really know St. Louis will be quite surprised to discover that while being a student at Dewey, he was living in a hotel that was at the corner of Delmar and Kingshighway Avenues, very close to four miles from Dewey School. He walked there every day!

The story opens on May 9, 1933. The author is just 12 years old and living at the Avalon, a very run down hotel at the southwest corner of Kingshighway and Delmar in St. Louis, Mo. It seems like it covers lots of time, but actually the “memoir” ends in the late summer of 1933, so it actually only covers about four months.

His family, he, his mother and father, have a one room flat on the third floor. It’s the heart of the Depression and they are simply dirt poor, often not even eating every day. He goes to Dewey School, quite a long walk away and on the opposite side of St. Louis’ very large Forest Park. He does have one younger brother, but he has been shipped off to live with some relatives on a farm. They just didn’t have the money to feed and care for him.

Again, while the work is billed as a “memoir” Hotchner does not use his own name for the narrator. However, it is the case that Hotchner himself did go to Dewey school, and did graduate in 1933.

In the memoir the main character and narrator is Arron (which is also Hotchner’s real first name). Aaron not only walks to school, but eats a great deal when there since at the cafeteria he steals food from smaller kids’ lunch boxes while they are goofing around in the lunch room.

Like Holden Caulfield of fiction, Hotchner uses a great deal of exaggeration in his every day descriptions of things making me wonder if he was influenced to write this memoir by the great success of J.D. Salinger’s THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. Hotchner’s work itself was published in 1972, so it is likely that he had at least read Salinger’s work.

In a funny scene he and a sort of “loser” rich kid at Dewey pair up to play marbles against some local first year high school students and Hotchner just smokes them. The boy brings him home with him for dinner and at a very funny scene they have this lavish meal in which he has dressed up in the other boy’s clothes. He just doesn’t know how to use the various utensils at the table or how to behave.

His family is always very short of food, but they do get some food for a few days when his mother has a tooth emergency and when it is taken out the dentist discovers there was some gold in the old filling. It pays the bill plus lots of food.

That particular episode was just one of many which did convey a very gut level and believable sense of what it was like to be among the many poor in Depression times.

Until a relatively recent time they were fairly normal working class folks, not with a great deal of money, but his father had a job and they lived a modest but decent life. Now there just are almost no jobs and they live from moment to moment in this run down hotel in a single beat-up room. The bathroom is down the hall, and it’s not a pleasant life. Even daily food is a great difficulty.

About mid-way though the book his mother is diagnosed with a return of her tuberculosis and was sent to the Fee-Fee institution in Creve Coeur for recovery.

Aaron and his father are left on their own in the Avalon Hotel to care for themselves and make do as best they can.

He is having a hard time surviving. He has a project to raise some canaries to raise money, but that fails. He was counting on this money, hoping to earn some $20 or so for graduation clothes. His older friend, Lester, helps him steal all the clothes he needs for graduation.

As graduation day approaches he’s alone in the apartment. His dad’s on the road trying to sell watches, his mother in the sanitarium.

He does go see his mother, and then to graduation. That goes well and he gets a student of the year award. However, he cancels out of the dance because he doesn’t have the money for a flower for his date and food for the party to be held at Medarts, a restaurant where many school classes used to go. I remember in 1953, twenty years after Hotchner’s class went there, so did my 8th grade class as well. However, since all of us lived in the Dewey School neighborhood (even though we went to St. James school) many of our families didn’t have a car, so Pino Sharamitaro, father of one of my classmates, drove the whole class, girls in fancy dresses and us boys in suits, to Medarts in the back of his grocery truck!

As graduation looms near things really go bad for Aaron. More and more “third floor” people are locked out. The second floor is now a place for prostitution and he even tries to get a job in the basement “dance” hall, but can’t. He is going to be evicted from his apartment and has nowhere to go and no relatives except his mother in the sanitarium. His father is away on the road selling watches and Aaron has no way to contact him.

Along the way he held out with no food for the last few days and saved most of his goods from being locked up and confiscated.

The “memoir” is a delightful read, again, especially for St. Louisians, and even more so for those who know of and live near Dewey School. I highly recommend it to all.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett