Fred Chappell’s novel I Am One of You Forever is a series of tall tales broken down by chapter and narrated by Jess, a pre-teen boy. I do not like considering this work as a novel: it reads, for me, like a collection of short stories, or oral, tall-tale stories that have been written down. Each chapter presents Jess with a desire, conflict, rising and falling action, a climax, and a clear ending; therefore, each reads as a self-contained short story. Yes, the stories are interrelated, but because they vary to such large degree (some chapters, such as “The Overspill,” “The Beard,” and the final chapter “Helen,” include magical realism) I feel they make a better collection of short stories than a traditional beginning/middle/end novel. On the other hand, the common thread throughout is Jess’s coming of age, and since the novel starts with him as a very young boy and ends with his dreamlike initiation into manhood, there is linear continuity and an end point, which indeed qualify the work as a novel.
Most of the story’s dialogue is written in the regional vernacular of North Carolina, where each individual story making up the novel is set. Throughout the “novel,” Chappell achieves the tricky job of transforming oral storytelling into written words, and he does this while allowing Jess to merge the tiny world of his life on the farm with the enormous outside world he learns about in school. Jess is depicted as a well-educated boy. For example, he is familiar enough with the Iliad to realize that his father had taken creative liberties when acting out the story in the family living room: “I could recall vividly my father’s retelling of the Iliad. . . . He flung himself down on the sagging sofa to represent Achilles loafing in his tent. . . . His excitement caused me to read the poem in a Victorian prose translation, and I found it less confusing that his redaction, it’s thrills ordered” (103). It is knowledge of such literature that expands Jess’s world outside of his North Carolina farm.
In the chapter titled “The Wish,” however, Jess learns that such advanced knowledge must at times be hidden, so as not to offend those whose education has been invested in less-academic matters: “My father shrugged. ‘I’ve had schooling,’ he said. ‘I don’t know how much claim I’d lay to being educated.’ ‘Yes,’ the old man said, ‘I knowed you was educated. I can tell by the way a feller acts what kind of feller he is.’ . . . ‘There’s different kinds of education,’ my father said. His voice sounded wise and melancholy, admiring” (162-3).
This lesson Jess learns about merging the world of outsiders with life within the mountains is underscored by Jess’s uncles and aunts when they visit the family. His Aunt Sam, especially, makes an impression as one who hasn’t let the outside world change her personality: “All the things that had happened to her in the many years of traveling, her music had never touched her central innocence. Whatever she did and said was as natural to her as dignity to a cat . . .” (166).
Perhaps this merging of the outside and the inside, the formal education with the homegrown education, is what Chappell wants to accomplish when mixing American tall-tale-style oral stories and magical realism with literary fiction in this collection of short-story-like chapters that make up his novel.
Chappell, Fred. I Am One of You Forever : A Novel. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985. Print.