One of those unfortunate traits of any generation is the tendency to ignore our elders. Those who take time to talk with and listen to parents, grandparents, and other older people often come away with unexpected blessings. After all, they have lived through experiences that everyone must encounter at some point, and thus have acquired valuable lessons to share with younger people who have yet to go through those experiences. Of course, that is what we expect. What surprises us is that the ordinary life experience of our elders frequently turns out to be the stuff of legends. Will Spires discovered this in conversation with his father. What he learned about his father’s childhood in Columbia, South Carolina, during World War II inspired him to build a coming-of-age story that resonates with readers on many levels.
Spires’ first novel, T.S. 44: The Button Tree Prophet, investigates the world of an ordinary boy from a working-class family. But then, what is ordinary about a boy losing his father on the eve of his tenth birthday? Perhaps that is what makes this novel so compelling from the first page. Travis Shipley’s life is already what contemporary readers would describe as underprivileged. His family is poor, his parents are uneducated, the Great Depression has drained his country of much of its vitality, and global war is redefining every facet of human interaction. In a world where everything that once was normal is now in transition, the merciless scythe of cancer snatches away the greatest source of stability in his young life. All that he has to help him find the right direction is a button his father gives him just before his death, charging him with the task of finding out what it means to be a button.
How Travis adjusts to this new reality is the vehicle by which Spires conducts us on a captivating journey through the convulsions impacting the urban, industrial, segregated American South of the mid-twentieth century. The fact that this Southern society is decidedly Christian – at least culturally – explains why this is a story of faith. Few stories of the South in that era could be otherwise. Christianity defines the culture for all the characters, regardless of their color, economic status, education, or even religion. That is where we find the first unique point of Spires’ novel. As Travis moves through the fog of grief and the daily reality of grinding poverty, he encounters help from unexpected sources. Chief among them is Jacob Meadows, a disabled World War I veteran who serves as the local truant officer. We quickly learn that Meadows, an observant Jew, is somehow able to move comfortably between the Jewish and Christian communities. This is surprising on several counts. First, the average reader likely is not aware that the Jewish community of South Carolina has ancient roots, going back to the earliest colonial days. Spires provides the historical background, establishing credible reason for Meadows to be simultaneously Jewish and Southern. That helps explain the next unusual point: how Jews interact with Christians in the American South. It is actually not so unusual. As a minority in every place where they have lived through the ages, Jews have learned to interact with the larger community, and simultaneously find space to be Jewish. Jacob Meadows helps us understand how that worked out in South Carolina. But then there is the strangest point of all: how this Jewish man can interact with Christians on their own terms. Spires provides not only a plausible explanation, but a very strong one. The answer comes from Meadows’ experience on the battlefields of France in the First World War, where differences of belief and practice fade in the presence of a brotherhood born of sacrificial love extending beyond the grave.
That is what makes Jacob Meadows the perfect mentor for young Travis. As unlikely as it may seem, it is he who is best equipped to help the lad through the inevitable questioning of and anger at God for the hard trials he endures. Meadows comes in at precisely the right moment, helping not only Travis, but his mother. Sarah Shipley is a woman already worn down by the ordeal of caring for her dying husband. Her new role as single parent of a precocious and willful son is all the more difficult because of her long hours at work earning just enough to pay the bills. The Shipley family needs stability and normalcy, which Meadows is willing and able to provide it in good measure. Others assist him, although not always by design. One is Alfred Patterson, a hard-nosed journalist who learns of Travis’ story, and another is Annie Wright, Travis’ classmate and neighbor, who is dealing with her own father issues. Then there is the Ragman, a black shoeshine artist whose long career as a railroad porter and as a pastor give him just the right words to speak into Travis’ life at the moment he needs them.
The encounter with the Ragman stands as one of the most poignant episodes of T.S. 44. This is where Spires deals with one of the ugliest features of the American South: segregation. Spires does not hit it head on. In fact, he does not hit any issue head on. Many aspects of life in that era are uncomfortable and even reprehensible by contemporary standards. The secondary status of African-Americans is but one. So also are the divisions between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, the powerful and the weak, men and women, and Christian and Jew. Moreover, the ubiquitous presence of cigarettes is something contemporary readers will find uncomfortable and even disgusting. Yet all these are part of the reality of mid-twentieth century America. Spires incorporates all of that reality into his story without judgment. That is one of the strengths of his work; had he engaged in judgement, his novel would be nothing more than a shrill cry for social justice that would bypass the deeper human truths he conveys. Thus we see the poignancy of the Ragman’s meeting with Travis: an old black man and a young white boy connecting on very human terms, even in defiance of the color barrier and other realities that otherwise would keep them apart.
In time, Travis finds an answer to the question of what it means to be a button. The Ragman is one of those who help him find that answer. Along the way, Travis not only receives help from unexpected sources, but finds himself helping others in unexpected ways. In the end, a tragedy that should never befall one so young imparts a life lesson that few learn even in old age: every one of us impacts multitudes of others in ways we usually do not realize. What Travis Shipley learns is that it is better to make that impact a good one by easing the burdens of others whenever possible. This opens him to what may only be described as a miraculous encounter with his Creator. Is that miracle believable? By the time Travis is ready to walk it out, the question is turned on its head. He has already come through improbable circumstances just by making himself available for God to use as He pleases. In a sense, his very survival to the age of ten is miraculous. Why, then, should he question Divine intervention at all? If it comes in small things like responding with compassion to the presence of a mouse in his room, then surely it is there in moments of great need. And that is how Travis Shipley, the unlikely Button Tree Prophet of Columbia, South Carolina, teaches us what it means to be human.