2 out of 4 stars
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Getting Butter from a Duck: Life Lessons from Rural Alabama to the Georgia State Senate is an autobiographical account of the life of author Ed Harbison. Ed was born into a poor, black family in 1941. His journey from boy to man would be riddled with life lessons from his mother and grandmother, siblings, friends, and the world events that shaped much of the 50s, 60s and 70s. Living in Alabama, Ed had a front row seat to the civil rights movement of the day. He experienced the Montgomery Bus Boycott in solidarity with Rosa Parks, and the incredible story of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. He was surrounded by violence, oppression and poverty, and yet through his life he managed to learn hundreds of different ways to get butter from a duck, and create a better life for himself and those around him.
This is a story that needs to be told. As a young, middle-class white woman living in Canada, I don’t know if I can even begin to imagine what it would have been like to live under such extreme circumstances. The amount of grit and perseverance displayed by the people in this story is nothing short of awe-inspiring. I loved hearing recollections of how the author’s family and friends had absolutely nothing, and yet they shared everything they had. They took pride in doing their best, and never stopped striving for a better life; even if it meant sacrifices for the greater good.
I liked the way that the author wrote this book almost as a collection of short stories. Laid out in chronological order, each story tells a different life lesson from the author’s perspective. This style allows the timeline to move along without having to create transitions, which I think was highly effective. However, I thought that many of the stories could have been laid out better. I often found that the author went around in circles, telling the story in a convoluted way. This made it difficult to follow what was happening. I also noticed a few stories that started in on one topic, went off on a tangent, and failed to come back and finish the original story.
I felt like the author sometimes lost track of the story, or forgot to mention important points. For example, in one story, there is absolutely no food in the house, and Mommy has several hungry mouths to feed. She has 50 cents, so she travels to the store to buy some buttermilk. On the way home, she drops the milk and it spills all over the sidewalk. Mommy is understandably upset, but she prays for a way to feed her family and goes home to make cornbread with gravy and syrup. While this is a lovely tale, it is unclear where the food came from when the story starts off stating that there is no food in the house. I also found that there were many details of Ed’s life that had to be pieced together through snippets in each story. For example, it’s not immediately clear that Ed is growing up in a mixed family home. The first mention that we get of this is on page 75 where his brother Eugene’s biological father is brought up in extremely brief passing with no explanation. Instances like this were common throughout the book, and made it extremely difficult to grasp the full picture of Ed’s life for the first several chapters.
Getting Butter from a Duck was also riddled with spelling and grammar mistakes. Sentences such as, “Due to a stubborn streak of wanting to do things his way and alleged unfair treatment by his boss, Daddy again” and, “He drew a line in the sand about six yards from the front porch and dare us to cross it” were much too common throughout the book, which made it extremely irritating to read. Individual stories were broken up with dividers, but I noticed that some stories spanned through several dividers, while other stories switched from one to another with no divider in between.
Overall, I rate this book 2 out of 4 stars. I genuinely liked the premise, and I learned a lot about both the civil rights movement and what life was really like for a struggling black family in Alabama in the mid 1900s. Many of the life lessons taught in the book are still relevant today, for people from all walks of life. We could all learn a few more ways to get butter from a duck. Unfortunately, the book needs some serious editing to correct the spelling and grammar mistakes and make sure that the story is told in a much less convoluted way. This book does contain some scenes of violence, including death. While none are dragged out or overly gory, I caution readers who don’t enjoy that kind of material. Otherwise (once the book is thoroughly edited), I would recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about growing up in the heart of the civil rights movement.
Getting Butter From a Duck
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