An Innocent View of Growing Up in the Segregated South

08/20/2015 03:31 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2016

Reading Gas Money by Troy Lewis is like sitting with him on his Aunt Jenny's front porch in Middlesex County, Virginia, while he unwinds the stories of his life, and what a storyteller he is. Gas Money is about growing up under segregation and then desegregation in a dysfunctional family, but encountering numerous "angels" along the way who provide him with "gas money," lessons learned that took him further in life than he ever expected to go. Aunt Jenny and sanctioned segregation are long gone, but not the effects on his life as well as that of so many others.

Gas Money is written mostly from Lewis's perspective as a 6, 10 and 12 year old, during times that had the greatest impact on his life. It is not the typical angry black man tale, although it could have been. The narrative looks at the many sweet moments of the author's life when he is shown kindness, and the many harsh moments when the significant difficulties of his parents' lives made him the whipping boy for their burdens.

There are accounts that cause one to laugh out loud, like the time at a Christmas dinner when he thought the toothpicks used to hold pineapple rings onto a ham were there to be eaten. Or on another occasion at the age of 12 when a girl offers to show him her breasts in the girls' locker room, and he is caught before he is rewarded with seeing them, and is labeled a pervert. When a psychiatrist he is forced to see asks him why he is there, he innocently states, "Because I am a pervert sir," without knowing what one is. You can feel the psychiatrist's stifled laughter when Lewis explains why, and he is declared perfectly normal and sent home.

Education was a big part of his life. Both his parents forced him to read by looking things up in a dictionary every time he asked a question, which accounts for his broad base of knowledge. Two topics of which he is most knowledgeable are music that was written and recorded before 1980, and sports. Subscribing to Sports Illustrated was one of the few luxuries he was allowed while growing up along with a radio close to his bed that he listened to late into the night.

As narrator, Lewis is the main character of the book, but if there are villains in the story, they are alternately played by his father and mother. His mother turns out to an antihero of sorts by teaching him right from wrong the hard way, with discipline, harsh words and sometimes a switch. Nonetheless, from today's vantage point of understanding how hard her life was, Lewis has forgiven her and is grateful for what she did for him.

Gas Money is written in a naïf style, somewhat unintentionally I assume, but it adds to the tale that makes it hard to put the book down. It is more than worthy for transformation into a screenplay, and if I wrote it, I would open with a scene of Lewis being interviewed by CSPAN at the Harlem Book Fair, the only author interviewed there in July of 2015. He is as eloquent and charming as he comes across in the book. The screenplay would go on to tell the tale through flashbacks of his mother raising eight children at the age of 20, her own two as well as her siblings left by her parents who, unable to support them in Middlesex County, went north for jobs.

There would be scenes of his father beating his mother, although he never saw it but heard it through the thin walls of his house. And then the pivotal reason his mother finally kicked his father out, but I don't want to reveal too much here.

Lewis comes across as a sensitive, gentle and kind soul, sometimes ornery, and certainly wounded by life's experiences. The book must have been a means of therapy for Lewis and it is for the reader as well since almost everyone has had damaging childhood experiences.

Gas Money is a terrific read, available at Amazon and on Kindle, and certainly should be on store shelves for broader distribution. Hopefully, this review will provide Lewis with "gas money" to take him even further as an author. It would certainly enrich us all.