I'm going to admit right up front that I have always had a soft spot when it comes to Southern writers who write well about growing up in the American South of the first half of the twentieth century. That positive prejudice comes from how easily I can identify with the stories that these writers have to tell. Willie Morris is one of those writers and, sadly, we lost him in 1999 at the relatively young age of 64.
Taps turned out to be Willie's last book and it was not published until 2001 after his wife, JoAnne Prichard Morris, working from notations that Morris made on the original manuscript, released it to Houghton Mifflin for publication. Willie Morris treasured his memories of growing up in Mississippi during the forties and fifties and, in Taps, he does a wonderful job of creating the atmosphere which he remembered so well. The story takes place in early 1950s Fisk's Landing, Mississippi, and is told through the eyes of Swayze Barksdale, a young high school student who finds his life forever changed by the Korean War.
The changes begin when Swayze and a friend of his are recruited by World War II hero Luke Cartwright to play "Taps" at the funerals of the many Fisk's Landing boys who are so steadily being killed in Korea. Fisk's Landing is small enough that Swayze can easily recall each of the boys being buried in the town cemetery and, in fact, some of them had been classmates of his until they dropped out of high school to join the military. The circumstances of 1951-52 force Swayze to mature in ways, and at a pace, that few 15-year-old boys ever face. He has to deal with the fact that his mother is more than just a little "odd," he finds his first love, discovers sex, gets drawn into a conspiracy to help his two best adult friends hide their own love affair, and loses his girl to the football captain.
But it is when Swayze finds himself playing "Taps" for his closest friend in the world that he really understands what it is to be a man. He has learned lessons in that one year that will serve him well for the remainder of his life and he will never forget the people of Fisk's Landing who helped make him into the man that he ultimately became. Taps is a touching story and Willie Morris wrote it in the style that the best southern writers have, a style that seems to come from growing up in the South during a certain period in time. Frankly, I haven't read all that much of his work, but I suppose I can look at that neglect as being a good thing because now I can look forward to reading the rest of it.
Rated at: 3.5