Sh*t My Dad Wrote
In his novel, Sam Halpern writes about Kentucky’s Jewish sharecroppers. A Q&A with the son who made him famous.
You’d think it’d be a little boring for a son to interview his father, since you’d imagine he already knows everything about him. In my case, you would be wrong. One of my favorite things about my father is that you never know how he’s going to come down on something, and he’s always one glass of bourbon away from telling an amazing true story you’ve never heard before. Reading my father Sam Halpern’s new book being published today by HarperCollins, A Far Piece to Canaan—a novel about a family of Jewish sharecroppers in Kentucky—is like having my dad sit down, take a sip of his favorite brown liquor, and tell you a story you’ll never forget. So, I asked him to share some of the stories behind the novel: about his own childhood in Kentucky, the lives of Jewish sharecroppers, and why he’s decided to cash in on my literary fame.
Justin Halpern: What’s a sharecropper?
Sam Halpern: In Kentucky in the 1940s, it was a poor devil who moved onto a landlord’s farm and gave away most of what he produced to the greedy bastard. Generally tobacco, the cash crop, was 50-50, but you not only supplied the labor, you supplied the equipment, cost of seed and fertilizer, and whatever help you needed to bring the crop to market. Everything else was negotiated, which meant everything else was dictated to the cropper. If you start sharecropping at age 25, you look 40 by the end of the year.
JH: There was no written contract?
SH: None I’ve ever heard of. The landlord had all the power. During the Great Depression, the sharecroppers were so desperate to find a place to farm that they were taken advantage of outrageously. I’ve heard stories about croppers kicked off a farm because they gave a drink of water from the farm’s well to someone the landlord didn’t like. It was a hardscrabble life, but at least you could raise your food and have a roof over your head. If you were lucky, in 20 or 30 years you could put by enough money to buy your own farm. That’s what my father did. Most croppers didn’t live that long.
JH: What was it like as a kid growing up on a sharecropping farm?
SH: In retrospect it seems hard, but at the time I thought life was great. You worked literally from sunup to sundown, but everybody else did too, so I didn’t think much about it. I was in the fields by age 8 doing the things that I was capable of, and by the time I was 12, I did pretty much everything expected of a full-grown man. And I didn’t know we were poor. Sharecroppers of that era thought the landlords were all rich, though. The croppers had their own society. Your neighbors were your friends, and tight bonds held everyone together. People would “swap work,” for example. This meant you would help neighbors with their work, such as getting their crops in the barn, and they would do the same for you. No money changed hands. Money was used for farm equipment, necessities for the house, and the purchase of the all-important automobile. Luxuries were nonexistent. Toilet paper, for instance. The Sears and Roebuck catalog served a dual purpose. Except for the slick pages.
JH: Yours was a Jewish family. Were there many Jewish sharecroppers in Kentucky in the 1940s when much of this book takes place? How much anti-Semitism did you face?
SH: To my knowledge, we were the only Jewish sharecroppers in the state of Kentucky. My guess is ever! As for anti-Semitism, I faced very little of it until I hit the big cities. The kids I went to high school with treated me just like any other teenager. They remain my oldest and dearest friends to this day, and my high-school reunions are a real joy.
JH: How did your family become sharecroppers?
SH: Dad came to this country at age 16 in 1912 from Lithuania looking for a life that afforded opportunity as well as escape from the brutal anti-Semitism of Europe. He learned English as a night-school student, and one of his teachers got him into an agricultural college in Bucks County, Pa. When he finished, he headed west, worked the wheat harvests, and eventually worked a farm in Oklahoma. He liked the farming life. From Oklahoma, he went to Kentucky where he had relatives, married your grandmother, who had never been out of New York City, and began farming. My mother went directly from Brooklyn to a sharecropping farm in Kentucky, setting a benchmark for culture shock. Dad bought his own farm in 1929, the year the Great Depression hit. Like thousands of farm owners, he lost the farm. From 1932 to 1950 he sharecropped in central Kentucky. We moved onto our own farm in 1950. I was 14 at that time. We became people of property, which has a special meaning in the South.
JH: How much of this story is fiction and how much is nonfiction?
SH: Like every novel, it’s a mixture of fact and fiction. Much of the description of central Kentucky and the life of the sharecroppers are real. Some of the topography has been changed for purposes of the story. For example, the Kentucky River has more than two bends. In fact it snakes its way to larger waters. However, the river is as I described it, at least the way it looked in the 1940s. It is truly beautiful. The people in the novel are fictional, each character being an amalgamation of many people I knew. Virtually all of the older people of the South will recognize these characters because they existed in every community. The tobacco yaps used to get together and tell stories about the local characters. I can still remember a lot of the stories and the characters, but it’s 2013 and people are sensitive these days.
JH: So, you went from a sharecropping farm in Kentucky to being a professor in a medical school in California. How did that happen?
SH: Actually, a lot of credit for that goes to my brother-in-law, Frank. My sister brought him home as her boyfriend to meet the family. He was just getting his Ph.D. in physics and was a hell of a baseball player. I loved baseball! Everything about Frank impressed me, and he became my role model. I decided to go to the University of Kentucky and major in physics. I had no idea what physics was, but I was going to be one. After I got to U.K., I found the math in physics was hard. After two years, I switched to physiology, got a B.S., then applied to medical school. From there, it was a year of internship, two years in the U.S. Navy, three years of internal medicine residency, a year of clinical nuclear medicine, a year of radiopharmaceutical fellowship, and my formal training ended. When a job opened up at UCSD, I took it and spent my whole career with the University of California. Role models are definitely important!
JH: You’re probably the toughest critic I know. I remember when we gave you The Da Vinci Code for Christmas. You tossed it out after reading it and told me “it’s for all the dummies.” Are you as hard on yourself as you are on the stuff you read?
SH: Worse. I’ve never written a sentence that I truly loved. The sentences you read in A Far Piece to Canaan almost made me break toilet training every time I scrolled past them on the computer screen. Want to read what I consider great writing? Read Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Mark’s my hero. A perfect sentence is like great sex; enjoy it while you’re involved in it because it might be the last time it will ever be that good.
JH: What do you think your dad would say about this book?
SH: “It ain’t bad; you going to sit there holding it or get off your butt and help me milk the god damn cows?” Later on, he’d go tell a neighbor that I had just written something great. He was that way; he loved to praise his kids, but he rarely ever praised them to their face. See how much nicer I was to you than he was to me, you little prick?
JH: Some people are going to think you’re just trying to cash in on the Sh*t My Dad Says stuff. What’s your response to that reaction?
SH: The people who think that can go piss up a rope.
JH: You’ve been working on this book since before I was born. If this were me, you’d ask, “What the hell took so long?” So, what the hell took so long?
SH: I had to make a living or your scrawny ass would’ve starved. That was only part of it, though; I was really involved in my work at the university and exhausted when I got home. I sometimes got up at 4 or 4:30 in the morning and got in a couple of hours. When you do writing that way, it takes a long time. Also, when you have a family, you not only need to bring home the bacon, but you need to be involved with your family and enjoy them. When you’ve reached 77, like I have, you realize that of all the important things in your life, nothing even compares with your family. I had fun with you, little dude. There are times I think about your antics and those of your brothers and find myself laughing out loud. You’re going to be a dad soon; remember what I’ve said here and don’t put anything before your family. If you do, you’re going to miss the best part of life.
JH: Some of my favorite stories of yours are about growing up in a tiny town in Kentucky and being Jewish. Do you feel like the Southern influence of where you grew up informed your Judaism?
SH: No. My understanding of Judaism had nothing to do with the South or for that matter anywhere else in the country. I read a great deal of Jewish history as well as the Old Testament and Jewish thought on a variety of subjects. I find it fascinating that an ethnic group that’s probably never exceeded 25 million could have had such an extraordinary influence on civilization. I also had a unique experience growing up as the only Jewish kid among conservative Christian people. I never discussed religion with them, but when they quoted Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, I often picked up their mistakes. You see, I read the New Testament, too. This did influence my thoughts perhaps not on Judaism, but on religion in general and its relationship to humanity. If I had been born and raised in a predominantly Jewish community, I might have missed this concept. So, I guess I have to amend my answer. My Southern upbringing really did inform my Judaism.
JH: Where did you go on the High Holidays and how big of a pain was it?
SH: We went to the Conservative synagogue in Lexington. And, yes, there was pain, and I’m not talking about the difficulties that you read in the book. Our family lost a huge number of people in the Holocaust. Dad divorced himself entirely from religion after World War II, but we always went into the synagogue on the High Holidays because your grandfather would say, “My father would have wanted it.” During the High Holidays, your grandfather would become very quiet, and it wasn’t a good time to irritate him. We had our conversations about religion after I grew into manhood, but I’m not willing to share them here.
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